It took overtime and the New Orleans Pelicans’ best effort, but they dealt Boston their 11th loss of the season and first in 2018.
After a loss like that in which the C’s could not find a basket in the final minutes, it may be tough to see them as a title contender. But their body of work up through and including that game may give them the best shot at defeating the Golden State Warriors and raising the Larry O’Brien trophy.
A crushing five-game loss to the Cavaliers in the Conference Finals set up a whirlwind off-season for Boston. The summer break featured four draft picks, six free-agent signings and three trades including the blockbuster Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving swap.
General manager Danny Ainge saw that last season’s team could not contend with the Cavaliers or Warriors. And he risked almost everything in a complete overhaul. When Ainge was done, he left the Celtics with only four players from the last season’s roster. This meant 2017-18 could be a challenging season. Boston would likely face adversity because they would have to rebuild team chemistry and create new game plans.
The team could not have gotten off to a worse start as big free-agent signing Gordon Hayward landed wrong off an alley-oop pass from Irving. A fractured tibia and injured ankle made it look as if Boston’s slim hopes for a title had ended.
The impact of that injury led to two opening losses for Boston, but they responded amazingly and rattled off 16 straight wins.
The next month was a bit more even keel as Boston went just 11-8 from November 22 to December 25. However, the speed picked up again recently with the aforementioned seven-game win streak.
Now at 34-11, the Celtics hold a three-game lead in the East including a seven-game advantage on the Cavs. That record puts them just 2.5 games behind the Warriors, a team that they defeated during that 16-game win streak.
With wins over 11 of the 15 other teams that would currently qualify for the playoffs, Boston cannot be overlooked.
The C’s competitive drive and their impressive recent record puts their resume right up there with the NBA’s elite. They could be the first team to break up the Warriors-Cavs Finals match up that has repeated for the last three years.
Team defense has been the biggest influence on Boston’s recent improvement. They rank second in the NBA with 98.1 points allowed per game and first in opponents’ field goal percentage, at 43.1 percent.
Defense has always been important to fifth year coach Brad Stevens. It was certainly a common denominator for the moves made this off season. Blockbuster additions Kyrie Irving, Gordon Heyward, and Aron Baynes are all great defenders. The starters that Stevens kept on, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, have been just as important.
In a league that is moving towards offense in places such as Minnesota, Cleveland and Houston, coaches often overlook defense. But Stevens’ attention to discipline, defense, and detail could give Boston an advantage. It’s no mistake that Golden State and San Antonio also rank in the top five of major defensive categories.
Defense could make a major difference in May as Cleveland’s 25th-ranked unit could have trouble competing with Boston.
Boston may be 1-1 against Cleveland this season, but their recent 102-88 victory made a statement. It could be the beginning of a changing of the guard in the Eastern Conference.
It looks as if Boston will improve on their 1-3 regular season record against Cleveland last season. That would likely lead to another Eastern Conference Finals meeting. And four victories, a real possibility, would land the Celtics their first Finals berth since 2010.
Boston split last season’s series with the Warriors and already defeated them once in 2017-18. If the Celtics can get past the Cavaliers, this may be a more favorable match up than most would expect.
If Boston won the 2018 title it would cement Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens as two of the best team builders of all time. Ainge stockpiled draft picks and young assets to build a contender.
As a result, the C’s are now right in the thick of things a few years ahead of schedule. Coach Stevens is responsible for that acceleration. He has developed a team mentality of attention to detail combined with a focus on stout defense. Boston’s instant team chemistry and desire to win could in fact equal a surprise title as early as June.