With their win over the Toronto Raptors on Sunday evening, the Boston Celtics improved to 12-2 on the season, with all of their wins coming in consecutive fashion after a devastating opening-night loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers (and a defeat to Milwaukee the next night).
How could a defeat in the first game of the season be “devastating?” It wasn’t because of how they lost. After all, the Celtics kept it close against the defending Eastern Conference champions, falling to the Cavaliers by a score of 102-99. It was because of what they lost.
Prized free-agent acquisition Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome broken ankle during the first quarter, effectively ending his 2017-18 campaign and essentially thwarting any chance Boston had of winning a championship. Not that the C’s were going to be beat the Golden State Warriors anyway, but their chances certainly became far less likely sans Hayward. But here are the Celtics, three weeks into the season, with the best record in basketball and showing no signs of slowing down.
They are winning games in all different sorts of ways, too. They are blowing teams out; they are making improbable comebacks; they are playing defense like nobody’s business.
Boston isn’t just beating cupcakes, either. During this stretch, the C’s have topped the Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Raptors (sans Kyrie Irving), with two of those wins (Milwaukee and Oklahoma City) coming on the road.
The Celtics also have the No. 1 ranked defense in the league with a defensive rating of 95.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the only other team allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions, and their defensive rating is at 98.5.
But in spite of how impressive Boston’s start has been and how terrific youngsters like Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum have played, we need to pump the brakes a bit.
Don’t get me wrong: This C’s squad is good. Very good, as a matter of fact. They have long, versatile, rangy defenders to make life very difficult for opponents. They are physical, they are quick, they are athletic and they have loads of potential.
Still, there are reasons to believe the Celtics are due for some regression and that they still don’t have enough to reach the NBA Finals.
First of all, Boston’s defense is likely to slip a bit. Not because the C’s aren’t a terrific defensive squad, but because it just doesn’t seem feasible to hold opponents to 95 points per 100 possessions for an entire season in this day and age of 3-point barrages and free-throw parades. The San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors were tops in the league last season with defensive ratings right around 101. The C’s may very well be the stingiest defense in the league and could end up on top of the league in that category when the season concludes, but it’s not likely they will keep defending at this ridiculous rate.
So, if their defense declines (and it almost certainly will), that will put more pressure on the offense to produce, and the Celtics do not exactly have a great offense. Boston ranks 18th in the league in offensive efficiency and 24th in points per game. In addition, the C’s are simply middle of the pack in 3-point shooting, coming in at 16th.
Losing a player of Hayward’s caliber will do all of that to you. Sure, the C’s have some talented offensive players. We know Irving can dazzle, and Al Horford is solid on that end of the floor. Brown looks like he will be a stud, while Tatum is already ahead of the curve at the age of 19.
But other than Kyrie, there aren’t any great scorers. Horford is solid, but he is not a true No. 2 option. And as well as Brown and Tatum have played, they are still kids, and you can’t expect to rely on them in a playoff series. Boston was expecting to have Hayward this season, and with him sidelined, the offense becomes very dicey.
Maybe the C’s can lean on their bench, right? They have had productive benches throughout the Brad Stevens era. That is just not the case this season.
The Celtics certainly have a lot of guys off their bench who can defend. Marcus Smart is a demon and is developing into one of the most lethal defenders in the league. Terry Rozier is a pest on that end of the floor. Aron Baynes brings some physicality.
But as far as reserve scoring options? Boston doesn’t have many.
Smart and Rozier can have big games every once in a while, but right now, they are both inefficient and inconsistent shooters who mainly help the team in other ways. Baynes gets some garbage points and can make his free throws when he gets to the line, but that’s about it.
Depth is crucial in the postseason. As important as it is to have a star-studded lineup, it is also imperative to have guys who can come off the bench and produce on a daily basis. Just ask the 2014 Spurs or even last year’s Warriors about that.
The C’s simply do not have that at this point in time. Of course, they can always make a trade for a bench scorer between now and February, but that still won’t be enough. The Celtics need at least two guys who can get them buckets off the pine.
Boston is going to be really, really good next year and probably for the next five-plus seasons. The C’s will almost definitely be the team to dethrone the Cavs once LeBron James’ reign of terror over the Eastern Conference is over. They have youth, talent, defense and more assets on the way.
Right now, though, the Celtics are riding a high that they probably won’t be able to sustain, and even if they do keep this up and ultimately win 60 games, they probably aren’t beating the Cleveland Cavaliers as currently constructed.
The Celtics are fun. They’re exciting. They’re entertaining.
However, this is more of a preview of what’s to come in future seasons rather than a demonstration of them being title contenders this year.
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