There’s a heavy divide in the NBA’s Eastern Conference (again). To nobody’s surprise, the battle for supremacy seems to be between the Cleveland Cavaliers and everybody else. Sure, the Toronto Raptors have had a spectacular season and are showing signs of being able to challenge the Cavs, and the East may finally be able to send eight teams with winning records to the playoffs again, but let’s not kid ourselves.
So, who will be the default team to match up (and lose) against Cleveland on their way to the NBA Finals? Why not the Boston Celtics? As the popular saying goes, these aren’t your grandfather’s Celtics. Heck, they’re not even your father or older brother’s C’s. This is a young, scrappy group that is thriving under third-year head coach Brad Stevens, and that’s where we’ll begin with our argument for Boston making the Eastern Conference Finals.
As most fans who closely follow the association know, Stevens was plucked by Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge from the college ranks before the 2013-2014 season by way of Butler University. To say that Stevens had a positive impact and was well-liked on the Indianapolis campus would be a colossal understatement.
The 39-year-old led the Bulldogs (who were in a mid-major conference at the time) to back-to-back NCAA title games in 2010 and 2011, only to lose to Duke and the UConn respectively. Although his nearly three seasons with the Celtics hasn’t always been pretty, Stevens is adored in Boston and has certainly seen success. Anybody who studies the balance of the league should realize that the C’s are a team on the rise.
In Stevens’ first season, the team went an abysmal 25-57. Then they bounced up to 40-42 a year ago and made the playoffs. Now, as of Friday night, the team is third in the Eastern Conference with a solid 34-25 mark. Barring a huge collapse, the team will improve their record for the second consecutive season under Stevens.
Aside from Stevens, another reason why the Celtics could make some serious noise in the tournament is one 5-foot-9 point guard, Isaiah Thomas. The 27-year-old is now unofficially a starter in Boston, after mostly being used as a sixth man over the past two seasons, and he is showing why he belongs in the lineup. In 32.5 minutes of action per game, No. 4 is averaging career-highs in points (21.6), assists (6.8), and rebounds (2.9), and he is shooting a decent 34.3% from downtown.
Thomas is nearly automatic from the free-throw line (89.2%) and is earning over six trips to the line per contest as well. Add on his 1.2 steals per contest and he is the most valuable Celtics player this season. When looking at potential first- and second-round playoff matchups, Thomas may be tasked with guarding the likes of Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, George Hill, Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, or Kemba Walker. Things could always change, but we think that Thomas could hold his own in any of those head-to-head encounters.
Another factor that bodes well for the C’s is their team defense. With ball hawks like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart in the backcourt, and the underrated Jae Crowder patrolling the front court, this team can create turnovers with the best of them. The Celtics’ opponents are shooting just 43.9% from the field this season, which puts them fifth in the league and ahead of championship contenders like the Cavs, Raptors, and Oklahoma City Thunder.
When looking at how their opponents shoot from three-point land (32.8%), the figures are even better, as they only trail the top overall teams in the league, the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. And, as we alluded, the Celtics are the best team in the NBA at creating miscues, as their opponents average a league-high 16.3 turnovers per game.
The final argument in favor of Boston making the Eastern Conference Finals is their lack of competition in the conference. As it appears right now, the Cavaliers and Raptors should feel pretty good about earning the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the east. Then, things get dicey. The Celtics at No. 3 and the Orlando Magic at No. 11 are separated by just 7.5 games in the standings.
Quite frankly, we like the Celtics’ chances at wrapping up the third or fourth spot and thus, having home-court advantage in the first round. Toronto — as they’ve shown in the past — could slip up against an inferior opponent in the first round, and then Boston would have home court in the next round. Even if they had to play the Raptors for the right to travel to Cleveland for the Conference Finals, the luck of the Irish may be strong in a favorable series against their neighbors to the north.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127