• Gus Saltonstall

The Boston Celtics Are The Second Best Team In The East

The Boston Celtics somehow replaced Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker, lost Al Horford without finding a true replacement and still somehow got better in the 2019-20 season.

The Celtics headed into the All-Star break with a 38-16 record and an 8-2 stretch in their last 10 games. The team sent two players to the All-Star Game in Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, and currently find themselves in third place of a jumbled Eastern Conference.

The Milwaukee Bucks are the undisputed king of the conference, sitting at 47-8 with a seven game lead ahead of the Toronto Raptors. Giannis is the front runner for his second straight MVP award and Khris Middleton continues to cut up opposing defenses with a brand of skilled simplicity that should bring a smile to every basketball lover. The argument over which team is the second best squad in the Eastern Conference, though, becomes a much more challenging one.

I’m here to tell you it’s the Boston Celtics.

I’ll start off with why it’s not the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors might be the most likeable team in the league. A year after winning a championship, losing their best player — and being more or less written off as a first round playoff exit in the 2019-20 season — the Raptors are absolutely hooping. Fresh off a franchise record 15-game winning streak (Don’t be the guy to say they only played bad teams), Toronto has found unexpected success through the continued rise of Pascal “Spicy P” Siakam, the consistency of Kyle Lowry, a strong supporting cast and the wizarding way of head coach Nick Nurse.

The Raptors are a great regular season team this year but it’s still a roster that boasts Fred VanVleet as its third highest scorer. After Siakam, yes we’re including Lowry, it’s a roster full of players that will struggle to be the lead player in a seven game series.

This Toronto Raptors team feels a lot like the Atlanta Hawks team from the 2014-15 season that finished as the No. 1 seed. They’re a good, well-coached basketball team, but stars win playoff games, and the Raptors can’t match the Celtics on that end.

The Celtics have a big man problem. Let’s get out in front of that issue. Failing to replace Horford with anybody other than Enes Kanter was always going to be an uphill battle. Kanter has shown flashes of strong play and Robert Williams has actually played better than expected when he isn’t hampered by injury. However, Daniel Theis has been the Celtics big man to lock down the end of game minutes and provide solid performances on a nightly basis.

Can the second best team in the East have Theis as their starting center? The answer I think is yes, for two main reasons. The first has to do with the players Theis is surrounded by. The Celtics have the second best defensive rating in the league behind the X’s and O’s of Brad Stevens. Boston plays well together on both ends of the court and also has a collection of individual talent that can take over a game.

Players win playoff games. Let me say it again. Players win playoff games.

The Celtics have four such players that have that ability. The list starts with Jayson Tatum, who has surpassed the rest of the Celtics roster in star ability and has solidified himself as a top five player in the Eastern Conference.

After Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and even Gordon Hayward have all shown take over ability this season. Not a single team in the NBA has a group of four players with that much quality. Obviously, there are bigger talents than Tatum, Walker, Brown and Hayward, but the Celtics strength lies in their variety of offensively skilled players.

The second reason why Theis works at the center position for the Celtics is that substitution rotations in the playoffs get tighter and lineups generally get smaller. Think Draymond Green playing crunch time minutes for the Warriors at the five or the Rockets decision to ship off anyone over the height of 6’8.

Size matters. But it matters less in the playoffs.

The other two teams in the discussion for second best team in the East are the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers. The Heat are another team that have played better than expected this season, but Miami and the Celtics do a lot of the same things on the court and the Celtics flat out do it better.

Boston has cruised to victories over Miami in the first two matchups this year, and the Jayson Tatum led squad has actually won the last five games between the two teams.

The 76ers are the biggest wildcard in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia also matches up really well with Boston, winning three of the last four and bullying the Celtics squad with their sheer size across the board. However, even if the 76ers might match up well, it’s a team that has serious enough other issues that they just can’t be called the second best team in the East.

Al Horford has been a dud in his first season, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons still haven’t totally figured out how to play with each other, and the same issues of lack of jump shooting, carless turnovers and poor coaching will continue to hamper Philadelphia until they change something.

The Boston Celtics are the official second best team in the East.

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