After losing Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris, the Boston Celtics have jumped out to a 25 – 10 start on the season thanks to outstanding play from a diverse roster. Kemba Walker leads a varied attack on offense, distributing for a trio of gifted wing players in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward. Marcus Smart holds down the fort on a defensive line punctuated by Daniel Theis and rookie Grant Williams.
Today, Boston ranks sixth in both defensive and offensive rating, falling behind only the Milwaukee Bucks among Eastern Conference teams. But can they contend for a title? Here are five reasons why we think our beloved Boston Celtics could go all the way this year.
Jaylen Brown: The True Two-Way Threat of the Boston Celtics
Everyone expected Jayson Tatum to excel, but Jaylen Brown’s emergence may prove more consequential in the end.
Tatum has been the golden boy in Boston since his first year in the league. Jaylen Brown was forced to earn his minutes, with all the stumbles and setbacks characteristic of a rookie player. But the road was far easier for Tatum, who displayed his considerable offensive skill from the jump.
In his first year, Tatum proved an able scorer, but he was also granted an outsized role in Boston’s offense from the outset, averaging nearly 14 points on 10.4 attempts per game. Brown’s maturation was far slower. During his first year in the league, Jaylen averaged only 5.4 attempts per game, ultimately scoring a meager 6.6 points per game
Given his early production, Jaylen Brown was never a sure thing, especially when compared to Jayson Tatum. Jaylen entered the league in 2017. Jayson came one year later, suiting up for the 2017 – 2018 season. And while Brown took a major step forward in his second season, raising his scoring average to 14.5 points per game, his coming-out party was overshadowed by Tatum’s introduction to the league.
Tatum immediately impressed. His length was next-level, and his stroke beyond the arc preternatural (even today, Jayson has never matched the three-point shooting average he logged in his first year, an impressive .434%). He was canny and clever, a natural scorer with outrageous athleticism.
His first year, Jayson could already score like a 10-year vet, ripping through the arms of defenders to earn a trip to the line, in a move eerily-reminiscent of Paul Pierce. Celtics fans were in love.
Jaylen Brown was a slow burn.
Immediately apparent was Jaylen’s elite athleticism: the man could fly, literally. Brown exploded off the court for thunderous dunks, a hurricane of muscle and tendon, his head inches above the rim. But his fundamentals were sketchy. For one thing, Jaylen couldn’t dribble; I would cringe when he brought the ball up, because I knew, sooner rather than later, he would lose the handle. And he often proved woefully inadequate on the defensive end, missing out on assignments (earning a stern talking-to from Marcus Smart) and jumping at pump fakes.
Jayson Tatum was coronated as the Celtics’ next star the minute he arrived in Boston. Jaylen wasn’t; he was a question mark, a wild card, a player with potential, but one who may never have the skill to make good on it.
It would be wrong to say the tables have turned, because Jayson Tatum has turned out as well as everyone expected (finishing skills aside), but no one can doubt the dominance of Jaylen Brown anymore. Jaylen has finally arrived, making good on the flashes of brilliance we witnessed in the 2018 Playoffs when Kyrie went down and the Celtics were carried to the Eastern Conference Finals by the young duo of Brown and Tatum.
In his fourth year, after a disappointing 2018 – 2019 season, Brown has emerged as a true offensive threat, one capable of scoring at least 20 points every night, rain or shine. He’s shooting lights out from three, and his skill finishing at the rim now exceeds that of Tatum. More to the point, Jaylen has proved himself a dynamic scorer, adding a slick turn-around jump shot to his arsenal to punish smaller players in the post.
This year, Jaylen is shooting .585% on nearly 15 attempts per game, showing he can be as efficient as he is powerful. And he’s consistent on the defensive end, too, often garnering the toughest defensive assignments on any given night (behind Marcus Smart, of course).
Sure, Jayson Tatum puts up flashier numbers, and his ceiling may well be higher than that of Brown, but I would argue that, today, Jaylen is the better player. And that’s a true difference-maker for the Celtics, because Brown was never a sure thing.
Philly Struggles To Find Consistency
In all likelihood, the Sixers represent Boston’s main competitor to challenge the Bucks in the Eastern Conference, which is why Celtics fans should be salivating over Philly’s recent struggles.
The Sixers have lost four straight, including defeats at the hands of middling competition in the Pacers and Magic. Over the past ten games, Philly has gone 3 – 7. Aside from a rousing win against the Conference-leading Bucks, Philadelphia has looked stagnant; Tobias Harris’ inconsistent play is a particular concern.
To make matters worse (or better, depending on your perspective), Philly is playing without a proper point guard. Ben Simmons is out of position, and now, the cracks are beginning to show.
But what’s truly worrisome in Philly comes on the defensive end. Opponents have averaged 115.3 points against the Sixers over the last ten games. Compared to the Celtics, who’ve allowed an average of 103.2 opponent points over the same stretch, the Sixers are a push-over.
All of which is great news for Boston, because we now stand a good chance at becoming the undisputed 2-seed in the East.
The Two-Headed Center
For all the talk of a potential Andre Drummond trade, the Celtics have been able to shore up their weaknesses at center with exceptional play from Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. It may not be a winning recipe in the long-term, but with the imminent return of an exciting young prospect in Rob Williams, Boston may already have all they need at the 5.
It’s a simple formula, but it seems to be working. When you need an offensive lift, throw it to Kanter for a healthy dose of low-post bully ball. When you need to get a stop, sub him out for the wiry Theis, whose blocking abilities were on full display when he stuffed an attempt from Trae Young in the final seconds of a close battle in Atlanta last week.
Kanter, in particular, has shown why he meant so much to the Blazers’ Playoff run last year. Enes leads the league in offensive rebounding percentage (16.5%) and ranks third in overall rebounding, at 20.8%. He’s reached career highs in both offensive and defensive ratings.
And we haven’t even mentioned Grant Williams, who played his best game so far at the 5 against Toronto. Thanks to the balanced efforts of multiple role players, things are getting exciting at center. Upon his return, Rob Williams will add yet another dynamic to Boston’s rotation at center, that of an elite athlete equally capable of blocking shots inside and swooping to the net for an easy alley-oop.
With Kanter on the block, Theis holding down the lane and Williams waiting in the wings, Drummond sounds like overkill.
Real Leadership From Kemba Walker & Gordon Hayward
These two have been playing very impressive basketball this season.
Though it may not always be apparent from the box score, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker are the mature leaders our team has needed for seasons. As die-hard Celtics fans that just want to see our boys in green consistently make the right basketball play, it’s relieving to see the poise with which these two can slow down a game.
Kemba Walker is proving he can be an offensive juggernaut even when he’s not the sole ball handler on a team. Scoring 22.5 points on average ain’t half bad. And what’s more, he’s facilitating our offense in a big way, with more than 5 assists per game. Walker is exceptional at viewing and breaking up the defense with precision plays and crowd-rattling heroics. Above all else, he’s a leader. He has shown the maturity so far this season to extricate himself from the offense when it’s not his night, ramping up his defense and play-making to continue impacting the game.
Walker is an inventive passer. Underrated, in fact. He creates space and varied scoring opportunities, and that happens to be how basketball games are won. Kemba stays unpredictable and knows how to help his teammates shine.
Gordon Hayward delivers a similar maturity.
Comparatively, he offers just 16.7 PPG, though Gordo is fully capable of going off for 20+ points and 10 rebounds (see the 10/30 win over Milwaukee and the 11/7 and 12/31 wins against Charlotte).
What he does that we like an awful lot, is he knows when to slow down the offense and set up a fool-proof play. The Celtics are a fairly young team and tend to excite easily. This is when we see our offense fall apart. Gordon is great at running the ball up slow, seeing the floor, and calmly setting up a great potential basket when the team needs it most. Hayward delivers a reset to the team’s offensive energy, much like putting Marcus Smart in for a jolt of energy on the defensive end.
No more suggestions that we can afford to lose Hayward in a trade for Andre Drummond. Just get that outta here.
Hopefully these two will stick around and be great leaders for the foreseeable future. Boston is in great hands, and the team’s younger players will have some great role models.
Marcus Smart Off the Bench
Marcus Smart is the soul of the Boston Celtics.
We’ve been hearing Marcus’ name in a lot of trade scenarios this season. But it would be a colossally bad idea to lose him. He is integral to the bench’s production and he’s the best dang pace-setter the Celtics have. Not to mention the entire Boston fan base would be royally pissed if Danny Ainge were to include Smart in any sort of trade.
There is no one the Celtics could acquire right now that would make losing Marcus Smart a viable option.
The longest tenured Celtic, we love Marcus Smart because of his unmatched defense and leadership. Seemingly in five locations at once, Marcus sets a great example for the team’s younger defenders. He shows these young C’s that there is no opposition too tall or guard too quick if you can anticipate and stay grounded. We would like to see Marcus be seriously considered for Defensive Player of the Year, though that’s nothing new.
Often seen throwing himself to the ground for a loose ball or performing some last minute heroics, he serves as the heartbeat of the TD Garden. Sure, he may not be the best scorer on the team, but he’s working on it and his improvement is measured. When he joined the league in 2014, he scored just 7.8 PPG. This stat has steadily climbed to 11.9 PPG so far this season. He has managed to vastly improve his shot selection while continuing to fight for impressive defensive plays.
We get a little misty-eyed talking about Marcus Smart. Bostonians just love him, and it makes sense. He is grit and passion personified. Here’s hoping that he can hold it down in Boston for many years to come, and that we may come to see #36 in the rafters.
Given outsized contributions from precocious rookies, rising stars and dependable veterans, the Celtics look pretty damn good this year. But with the Bucks in firm control of the Eastern Conference, can Boston really reach the NBA Finals? In our next article, we’ll break down an in-depth analysis of this all-important matchup against Milwaukee.
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