The Boston Celtics took care of business against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night, winning handily, 111-98, on the road. The Celtics are now 23-7 over their last 30 games, trailing only the Warriors for the best record in the league over the last 8 weeks. (Golden State is 23-5.)
After the loss, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who knows a thing or two about winning an NBA title, was blunt with his praise, saying of the Celtics: "They have a legitimate chance to get to the Finals through the East with that team."
Boston has quietly, along with the Washington Wizards (themselves 23-7 over their last 30), become the hottest team in the NBA. And the way they’re built, and the way they’re coming together, has me thinking something I never would have imagined this season: The Celtics could absolutely knock off the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.
When assessing this team’s success, it all starts with head coach Brad Stevens. Now in his fourth year as head coach, Stevens has progressed from exciting talent to undeniably one of the best coaches in the league. He’s been able to take a team that might not always make the most sense and clearly define roles for every player, getting the maximum out of guys like Jonas Jerebko and Terry Rozier. When Avery Bradley went down with an injury, Stevens shuffled minutes and encouraged Marcus Smart to step up in his absence.
Stevens has improved the defense, made the offense more creative, and has the greatest arsenal of inbound plays in the league, which are good for a few buckets a game. (Those buckets can often make the difference.)
But could they really beat the Cavaliers? Well, in the right series, sure. The Celtics have multiple guys they can throw at LeBron James, including Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Gerald Green (Jonas Jerebko and James Young are also good for a few hard fouls). They also have two of the only guards in the league who have a prayer of staying in front of Kyrie Irving in Bradley and Smart. If Kevin Love’s health continues to be an issue, and the Celtics can contain James and Irving (both big ifs), the Cavaliers are going to struggle to score.
That’s the biggest “if” heading into the playoffs, though: The Celtics defense. It’s struggled this year. The team likes to go small, especially in the fourth quarter, and their defensive rebound rate has struggled, giving opposing teams opportunities for second-chance baskets. This usually doesn’t matter because Isaiah Thomas is a human torch at the other end, but it is something that the Celtics will need to address heading into the playoffs.
Amir Johnson will be a big part of that – if he can lock down opposing teams’ best players and clean the glass early (or contribute enough offensively that he can stay on the floor at the end of games), the Celtics can hang with anyone. When it comes to a team like the Cavaliers, or even the Raptors or the Wizards, the Celtics can win a few games in a track meet. But they can’t win every game like that.
And the Celtics have their ace in the hole, the diminutive scorer Thomas who has quietly put up MVP-type numbers over the last two months. Thomas is averaging 29.8 points per game this season, shooting 53% from 2-pt and 38% from 3-pt despite an uptick in usage. Despite his 5-foot-9 stature (and that might even be generous), he’s developed into one of the game’s most deadly players in the fourth quarter, running the team’s offense and closing out games when opponents start locking down on defense. If he keeps up this form, and the Celtics can hang tight in games, they can take down anyone in the East, including the mighty Cavaliers.