Celtics

Can We Consider the Celtics True Title Contenders?

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Are we underrating the 2021-22 Boston Celtics?

They’re the hottest team in the NBA and are capable of knocking off any opponent right now. According to Caesars Sportsbook, they find themselves at +2000 odds to win the NBA Championship and with the fifth-best odds to win the Eastern Conference at +900. 

Can We Consider The Celtics True Title Contenders?

Tatum Is Terrific

Entering play on March 11, Boston had won 15 of their last 17 games. 

The primary reason for Boston’s success is the sizzling play of Jayson Tatum. He has been virtually unstoppable and his performances have not only terrorized defenses, but also are opening opportunities for other key players. 

Tatum ranks third in points scored this season (1,739) while also displaying his clutch abilities, as he ranks third in fourth-quarter points (432). He dropped 54 against the Nets on March 6th and 44 vs. the Hornets on March 9th. Entering play on March 11, he had scored 135 points in three games, breaking his own franchise record set in the spring of 2021.

“He’s getting the matchups he wants and getting to the spots he wants and getting the shots he wants,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka told the media after the win over Charlotte. “That’s a huge luxury to have when you have a guy who can do that.”

Tatum ranks eighth in scoring at 26.8 points per game. He has averaged 35.4 points per game since the All-Star break and was averaging 42 points per game in the first four outings of March. During that span, Tatum has shot 55.8 percent from the field and 46.3 percent from three-point range. 

Against Charlotte, four other Boston starters scored in double figures, led by Jaylen Brown with 15 points. All the Celtics starters also scored in double figures in the win against Brooklyn, as Brown had 21 points. 

Robert Williams (11 points, 11 rebounds) and Al Horford (10 points, 10 rebounds), both recorded double-doubles against Charlotte. Marcus Smart has 30 assists in his past three games. Williams is averaging 9.8 rebounds per game and Horford has seven double-figure rebound games in the last two months. 

Defense Helps Drive Boston

Tatum is capturing the headlines, but the Boston has been very balanced outside of him. Udoka is doing a very admirable job making it all work for the Celtics, as he was the NBA’s Coach of the Month for February when Boston won nine of 11 games. He became the first rookie head coach in the storied history of the franchise to win the honor.

We cannot deem the Celtics as a contender to win the Eastern Conference based just on Tatum’s excellence and how it impacts the rest of the team, though.

Boston has played superbly on both ends of the floor. The Celtics own the best team defensive rating (105.6), lead the league in opposing field-goal percentage (43.1), are tied for second in opposing three-point field-goal percentage, have held their opponents to a league-low 21.6 assists per game and rank second in the league with 6.0 blocks per contest.

Williams is widely considered a strong Defensive Player of the Year candidate, as he leads the NBA in blocks at 2.2 per game. NBC Sports highlighted a nugget from StatMuse that noted opponents are shooting 6.4 percent worse than their normal field-goal percentage when guarded by Williams. Smart is sixth in the league with 97 steals per game. Horford is averaging 1.4 blocks per game. 

The Celtics have been looking good on both offense and defense. But are they a true contender in the Eastern Conference?

One Of The Big Five In the East?

The Celtics have jumped into the top three in the NBA’s weekly power rankings. It has been quite a turnaround for a team that started 17-19 this season and was looking headed for mediocrity when the calendar turned to 2022. 

But is Boston good enough to make a deep playoff run? As of March 15th, the Celtics are four games behind the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but the Vegas odds we shared earlier are not being swayed by Boston’s recent hot stretch. 

We do have to be careful not to overreact to how good the Celtics have been over the past three months, as we all know the levels of play will be further raised in the playoffs. Boston has a top-notch-defense and two outstanding offensive players in Tatum and Brown. 

The Nets are regarded as favorites to win the East at +280, and if Kyrie Irving is cleared to play in home games, they should have a very good shot of at least playing in the conference finals. The 76ers and Bucks are at +340. Philadelphia should be better than Boston offensively once it fully gels, but the Celtics will have the edge on defense. 

Milwaukee has the best player in the league, and leads the NBA in offense. Miami is just as good as Boston on defense and is very capable of displaying good offensive balance. The Celtics might have to face two of the Heat, Sixers, Bucks and Nets to win the East. 

The Celtics’ depth will be tested, and Tatum and Brown cannot afford any off stretches against such levels of opposition. It would not be a shock to see Boston reach the NBA Finals, but the star power of Brooklyn or Philadelphia, the dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the balance of the Heat are all challenging factors to overcome. 

The continued high-level play of Tatum, and Boston’s defense, though, does put them in the conversation with the other four projected powerhouse teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It may seem to be a lot to ask for the Celtics to oust two of the other top-four teams in the East, but you cannot count them out. If Boston can sustain its current momentum into the playoffs, a chance to play for a berth in the NBA Finals is very possible. 

About The Game Day's Scott Engel

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