The Celtics’ second consecutive playoff run already looks more promising than last year’s, at least through the first round. They have two regular season games remaining and currently hold a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re guaranteed at least third place, and with one more win they’ll have clinched at least the second seed.
But the main concern shouldn’t be playoff seeding. The Celtics match up well against any team they’ll see in the first round. The real trouble begins if the Celtics go head-to-head against Toronto—while Boston’s defensive perimeter may be enough to fend off Washington’s backcourt, Kyle Lowry and the Raptors’ strength in the paint has dominated Boston all season and may well continue to do so.
Not to mention LeBron’s bit of playoff ball we saw last Wednesday in Boston. Cleveland’s poor defensive rating since the All-Star Break (29th overall) is moot the moment playoffs start, and we’ve seen it already. The Cavs can dance.
No doubt spreading the floor works well for Boston, but it can malfunction when pitted against big rebounding teams. The Cavaliers made a point of this last Wednesday night when they grabbed 51 boards to Boston’s 38, contributing to the devastating 114-91 loss.
Still, for a team that’s exceeded virtually all expectations, the Celtics have nothing to lose. It’s easy to see what they have accomplished and forget that general manager Danny Ainge completed the rebuild in three years—plus, he isn’t done yet, meaning a playoff run at any capacity deserves praise.
For a team that made no moves at the trade deadline, the Celtics are well-rounded offensively. Save poor rebounding, their bigs fit well with head coach Brad Stevens’ style. They ranked ninth in the league in offensive rating. That’s just ahead of Utah and one behind San Antonio.
Somewhat disconcerting is that Boston’s competition has dropped significantly in quality since last year. Compared to last season, when they went 23-25 against teams .500 and above, they’ve now played 12 less games against teams within the same category. Their performance against winning teams hasn’t improved by any notable margin, either—they’re now 17-19 in that field.
But the Celtics are in first place for a reason. The Cavs’ mid-season dip closed the gap in the standings, and Boston took advantage. Whether LeBron and the Cavs flip the switch come playoffs doesn’t mean a thing to the one or two seed. That is, not until the Eastern Conference Finals.
Boston plays rough. They hit hard when they need it most and can finish out close games. Marcus Smart’s grit and Isaiah Thomas’ ability to cut through the defense work. Kelly Olynyk’s contribution off the bench works, no matter how surprising it always is. The plan should be to figure out how to make those assets work in the playoffs, because playoffs are an entirely different game.
Chances are slim to none they’ll bring the 18th banner home this year. They’re not ready to make it out of the Eastern Conference, yet. But the Brooklyn Nets’ spectacular malfunction should have erased any doubts surrounding Ainge and the young talent on this team; deep playoff run or not, Boston’s future with Ainge is bright.