It's Time to Take the Celtics Seriously as NBA Finals Contenders

Liam McKeone
Jayson Tatum drives to the basket
Jayson Tatum drives to the basket / Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
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The Boston Celtics defeated the Toronto Raptors 118-102 on Christmas Day in the first of a five-game slate for the NBA. The win brings them to 21-7 on the year. It's their fourth victory in a row, and they're 8-2 in their last 10 games. It was questioned if Boston could sustain their hot start, but now that we're through Christmas and the Celtics continue to roll, it's become quite clear that it's time to take them seriously as NBA Finals contenders.

For how good Boston has been, they have yet to play more than a handful of games at full strength. Jaylen Brown missed a few games to start the year, then Gordon Hayward missed just under a month with a hand injury, and Marcus Smart has missed the last few games with a bizarre eye infection. Yet despite all that, they rank sixth in the NBA in offensive rating and third in defensive rating. Only the Bucks, Clippers, and Lakers are also ranked in the top 10 in both categories-- and all three are considered favorites to reach, if not win, the Finals.

Boston's cadre of scorers all complement each other perfectly. Kemba Walker consistently comes up big when the team needs a quick bucket or two, and is perfectly content to sit back and let everyone else work if he doesn't have it going. Brown has developed into an excellent slasher who doesn't hesitate to bully smaller guards inside and, when he's feeling it, is a threat to score from all over the floor; he scored an even 30 on Christmas Day on a combination of spot-up threes and some highlight-reel midrange jumpers. Jayson Tatum has had a few dud games (he scored only 11 points on 5-18 shooting against Toronto), but he's improved his shot selection and can still do things like go off for 39 against the Hornets. Gordon Hayward is their jack-of-all-trades, easily getting to his spots and consistently making the right pass.

That's four guys who Boston can rely on for consistent offense, night-in and night-out. If one guy is cold, they just move on to the next one to create looks. Most teams don't have more than two of those guys. Everything gets harder come playoff time, but this squad has proved themselves up to the challenge when facing top competition; they nearly beat the Clippers in Los Angeles, beat the Bucks after doing down big early back in November, and only narrowly lost to the Sixers despite a short-handed roster earlier this month.

This team has flaws, but they're manageable. The Sixers will dominate Boston with their size, and because of that they represent the biggest threat to a potential Finals run for the Celtics. There isn't going to be a magical solution on the horizon in that regard; Danny Ainge seems very unlikely to trade Smart or Hayward to match a contract like Steven Adams', and relying on the buyout market for an important playoff contributor is a dangerous game. But their defense has been elite despite their lack of size because of their length and high-energy switching defense.

Once Smart returns, Boston has all the pieces of a modern championship contender: multiple skilled offensive centerpieces who can shoot from deep and operate in the pick-and-roll efficiently without turning the ball over, a defensive Swiss Army knife to sic on the opponent's best player, and a team defense that operates on a string without many mistakes. They don't have the one overpowering superstar that their main competition will have (LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, et al), but they've proven their assortment of players ranging from very good to legitimate stars can get the job done.

The rotation will have big question marks after the top seven guys; Grant Williams has been great as a rookie, but it's tough to rely on the young guys in the playoffs after a long season, and Enes Kanter has his noted flaws. Robert Williams is out for another month and still makes enough bone-headed mistakes that Brad Stevens should feel nervous about throwing him in during crunch time in May. But this team has the pieces to make a run into June with a little luck-- and just like every championship run, a little luck and a lot of skill is required. The Celtics have the latter. We'll see if they get any of the former.

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