The Boston Celtics finished last season with a 36-36 record and were bounced from the first round of the playoffs by the Brooklyn Nets. In the offseason, Ime Udoka replaced Brad Stevens as head coach and the Celtics didn’t do much to upgrade their roster. The team struggled out of the gate in 2021, with a 17-19 record through December 31st. Udoka, lauded for his defensive schemes and leadership, sought to restore the Celtics’ defensive identity to elite status. He knew it would take some time.
Something clicked in 2022. Since the turn of the calendar, the Celtics are an Eastern Conference-best 26-9. They currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. After a slow start, the Celtics are suddenly back in the NBA title race.
Are the Boston Celtics NBA title contenders or pretenders?
The Boston Celtics – Contenders or Pretenders?
Strength 1 – League-Leading Defense
After some early-season troubles, the Celtics have fully adapted to Ime Udoka’s suffocating, switch-heavy defensive system. Since January 1st, the Celtics rank first in the NBA in net defensive rating (103.4), first in opponents’ points per game (100.6), and first in opponents’ FG% (42%). Given the recent scoring surge in the modern NBA, the old adage of “defense wins championships” may not be as significant as it once was. But defense still matters, especially in the playoffs, and no team is playing defense at a higher level right now than the Celtics.
Robert Williams (aka Time Lord) won’t be named the NBA’s Defensive Player of Year this season, but he’ll definitely receive All-NBA defensive honors. Williams’ shot-blocking was always a strength but his floor positioning often led to foul trouble. This season, Udoka has moved Williams out of the paint and into the corner. This forces opposing wings into contested shots while Williams uses his speed and range to cut off drives to the hoop. His shot-blocking remains elite and his fouls have lessened. He’s 2nd in the league with 122 blocks this season.
Strength 2 – Tatum’s Star Power
On the offensive side of the ball, Jayson Tatum continues to grow into one of the league’s most lethal scorers. His length and natural ability make him one of the hardest players in the league to guard straight up. Tatum averages 26.8 points per game, good for eighth-best in the league this season. He’s played in 65 of the Celtics’ 69 games, making him the most durable player on the league’s top-10 scoring list. His partner on the wing, Jaylen Brown, has settled in as the Celtics’ number two scoring option. Brown’s continued development as a shot creator makes it very challenging for teams to commit to doubling up on Tatum. Marcus Smart takes a few questionable shots each game. But he does enough to apply pressure to opponents’ defensive rotations because of his ability to get to the rim.
Weakness – Offensive Flexibility
Tatum is by far the best offensive weapon the Celtics have. When opponents try to take Tatum out of the equation – either by double-teaming him or sticking him with their best shut-down defender – the Celtics have to rely on someone else to score. Both Brown and Smart have shown the ability to do this from time to time. But the best version of the Celtics offense ultimately flows through Tatum. If experienced defensive-minded teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, and Toronto Raptors face the Celtics in the playoffs, they’ll surely apply maximum pressure on Tatum and make someone else beat them.
‘X Factor’ 1 – New Additions to The Boston Celtics
In the offseason, the Celtics’ new GM Brad Stevens swung a trade to bring Al Horford back to Boston. The deal was primarily seen as a means to an end – to shed Kemba Walker’s contract from their books. The expectations for an aging Horford were tepid, at best. Last season he appeared in only 28 games as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. This season he’s already played in 59 contests. At 35 years old, Horford brings poise, veteran leadership, and playoff experience to one of the NBA’s youngest teams. His 16.60 PER ranks him in the top 80 in the league.
At the trade deadline, Stevens and the Celtics acquired guard Derrick White from the San Antonio Spurs. Coach Udoka was an assistant to Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich when the Spurs selected White in the first round in 2017. White’s defensive intensity and high basketball-IQ have meshed perfectly with the Celtics style. There wasn’t a ton of buzz around this acquisition at the deadline. But White’s presence has had an indelible impact on the Celtics’ recent success.
‘X Factor’ 2 – Continuity & Youth
The Celtics’ biggest ‘x-factors’ might be the continuity of their young core. Apart from White, and to a lesser extent Horford who played a few seasons with Tatum and Brown before departing to Philadelphia in 2019, the core of this Celtics team has been together for a while. They’ve battled in the playoffs together. They’ve avoided serious injuries all year and have had a chance to grow into a new system together. By the time the playoffs arrive, the Celtics will know exactly who they are as a team. Continuity is usually a recipe for postseason success.
The Celtics are also the youngest team in the NBA. Tatum is 24, Brown is 25. But don’t mistake their youth for inexperience. The Celtics reached the Eastern Conference finals in each of Tatum’s first two seasons and haven’t missed the playoffs since. Younger players means fewer miles on their bodies, fewer deep playoff runs that eventually catch up to older players and lead to injuries. Their youth, stamina, and experience will come in handy this season as they aim to make another deep playoff run.
Verdict – Don’t Sleep on The Boston Celtics
The Celtics are currently playing as well as any team in the NBA. Udoka may be in his first year as an NBA head coach but he’s familiar with the pressure of the NBA playoffs from his time in San Antonio. Tatum is a bonafide star, and the Celtics’ league-leading defense should present plenty of issues for their playoff opponents. The East is stacked this year, but this Celtics team is built for a deep playoff run.
The Boston Celtics are NBA Title Contenders.
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