In the NBA bubble, will the Celtics’ elite numbers translate against the league’s top tier?

by nyljaouadi1
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Training camps are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks, and the NBA intends to restart the 2019-20 season in Orlando on July 30. Beyond that, though, there is a torrent of uncertainty: How many players will decide against going to Disney World? Can the league keep everyone on site safe despite the rising COVID-19 case numbers in Orange County, Florida? Will the ramp-up and compressed schedule increase the risk of injury? Will these “seeding games” and the ensuing playoffs feel legitimate? 

For the sake of this conversation about the Boston Celtics, let’s assume that the rosters will be more or less what they were in March. Here’s a preview of the second part of Boston’s season, featuring Colin Ward-Henninger and James Herbert:

James Herbert: The Celtics, unlike the teams you’ve written about recently, don’t have a big, glaring, new storyline to follow. They project to go into the bubble essentially the same as they were in March, but ideally a little healthier: The last time we saw them, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward had nagging injuries.

The question, had the season continued normally and now, is whether or not Boston is as good as it looks on paper. Widely considered to be in the NBA‘s second tier, looking up at the Bucks, Clippers and Lakers, the Celtics’ track record tells a different story: They’ve beaten all the “true contenders,” and they are top five in both offense and defense. Beyond that, nobody’s been better against good teams — per Cleaning The Glass, Boston has a plus-5.6 net rating in 19 games against opponents with a top-10 net rating.

Are these numbers persuasive to you? What’s your read on Jayson Tatum a few months removed from his arrival as a go-to guy? Is that even the right term for him on a team that has so many playmakers? Give me your Celtics thoughts. 

Colin Ward-Henninger: To me, the Celtics are basically the poster boys of that second tier — a step behind the true title contenders, but a team you wouldn’t be surprised to see in the conference finals. As you point out, the numbers suggest perhaps they are closer to that top tier than people realize, with a net rating almost equal to that of the Raptors and Clippers.

The biggest question to me entering the season was how, and whether, the Celtics’ five best players would play together. It turns out that hasn’t been an issue at all, as Walker, Brown, Hayward, Tatum and Marcus Smart have only logged 15 minutes together all season due to each of them taking turns with injuries. It was never a lineup that was going to log huge minutes, but I saw it as more akin to the Warriors‘ “Death Lineup” or “Hamptons Five,” a small unit full of skill and IQ that would deliver the crushing blow. Whatever you want to call Boston’s version of that lineup had basically an even net rating in that minuscule sample size, and it was predictably poor in defensive rebounding percentage.

The bright side of Brad Stevens not having that lineup available for most of the season, however, is the emergence of Daniel Theis, who is a part of each of the Celtics’ best five-man lineups this season in terms of net rating. The Walker-Smart-Hayward-Tatum-Theis unit has a plus-13.1 net rating in 169 minutes, and is particularly stingy on defense, allowing just 95.5 points per 100 possessions. Plugging in Brown for Smart flips the dynamic on its head, as you might expect, with the offensive rating swelling to a robust 121.1 in 188 minutes, with a net rating of plus-12.5.

That’s all evidence that the Celtics have one of the league’s more versatile rosters now that Theis has become a reliable NBA starter on both ends of the court. Can they go small? Sure. Do they HAVE to go small, as many thought they would? Absolutely not.

Which brings us to the Tatum question, potentially the difference between the Celtics being a fringe contender and a true contender. Has he become a superstar? I hate using that term because it’s so vague, but you have to go back to the 2004 Detroit Pistons to find a championship team that didn’t have someone widely agreed to be a “superstar.” Last year’s Raptors were in the Pistons’ mold, with a deep and versatile attack, but they had Kawhi Leonard, the ultimate difference-maker. I’m not saying Tatum has to be Kawhi, but precedent suggests that at some point in the playoffs a team needs a player to take over. Tatum has the tools to be that guy, but this will be his first postseason as the bonafide alpha, which will almost certainly come with its own learning curve.

It’s so much fun when you see a player start to put everything together, and if he can sustain his production in the playoffs, the Celtics are legit title contenders. It’s just hard for me to imagine Tatum doing that as a 22-year-old, particularly given the break in momentum and the unique conditions of the Disney bubble.

Herbert: If I were splitting hairs or feeling particularly ungenerous, I’d say Tatum won’t be a superstar until he gets better at creating for others. But 1) he might shoot so well off the dribble that it doesn’t matter, and 2) on this team, I’m not sure that he needs to be a typical leading man. 

Tatum isn’t Kawhi, and while he can do Kawhi-like stuff, it’s OK if he’s not always the guy who takes over the game. More than even most other contenders, Boston is built to attack different defenses in different ways, which means I wouldn’t be surprised if Hayward or Brown opened the playoffs by erupting for 30 points, even though the offense is tilted toward Tatum and Walker.

I love the Celtics’ balance, especially if we’re assuming their six best players are going to be healthy and playing heavy minutes in the playoffs. I love their defense, with Tatum picking off passes and Smart pissing off everyone. But if I still have questions: 

  • How bad is the Sixers matchup?

  • Is the bench good enough?

  • Will I love their balance as much as I do now when they’re in crunch time of a conference finals or Finals game?

I don’t have the answers, but I know that I hesitate to put Boston in the same category as everybody’s three favorite potential champs. Maybe I’m succumbing to groupthink, maybe it’s a nagging sense that there just isn’t quite enough top-end talent here. 

Ward-Henninger: I’m glad you brought up matchups because they seem more relevant than ever given the relative parity between seeds No. 2-6 in the East. Even the Pacers, who most would probably put below the Raptors, Celtics, Heat and 76ers, will be an extremely tough out, especially if Victor Oladipo continues to regain his old form. The 76ers’ size is obviously a problem for the Celtics on paper, and Philly beat them in their first three matchups this season, but Boston bounced back to destroy them in their last meeting — even with Walker sidelined. Tatum had 25 points in 28 minutes, and more importantly, the Celtics were able to hold Joel Embiid, who destroyed them in the second game, to 11 points on 1-11 shooting. The 76ers are still a rough matchup, but that should at least give the Celtics some confidence.

The bench could become an issue if they run into deeper teams like the Heat or Raptors, but the Celtics have the ability to stagger with Hayward, Smart and/or Brown commanding the bench unit. Do I expect Semi Ojeleye, Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker and Grant Williams to suddenly turn the tide when they come into the game? No, but they are a solid group who can keep the team afloat for a few minutes here and there while the team’s best six players get the vast majority of the playoff run. Stevens will have to get creative with his rotations now that he has a fully healthy roster, which makes these eight “seeding” games all the more important.

Herbert: I like their bench more than most people do — I wrote about both Williams and Wanamaker early in the season — but I still wish they’d added one more guy at the deadline. Anyway, I’d like to return to a point of comparison you referenced initially: last year’s Raptors. It’s easy to reflexively say that Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and whoever comes out of the West will be matchup nightmares for this group, but Boston’s help defense is scary, too. 

As exceptional as Kawhi and Marc Gasol are, the former Defensive Players of the Year didn’t simply shut down Giannis and Embiid one-on-one. Toronto scrambled, switched and swarmed its way to the Finals, where it deployed a defense it had never even practiced to try to annoy another franchise player. That will be the Celtics’ formula, and we already know Stevens will use a box-and-one if he has to. 

All of the “true contenders,” by the way, start a traditional big man, none of whom wants to deal with Walker and Tatum targeting him in a million high pick-and-rolls. Opponents might dare Smart to beat them from the 3-point line, and he might do just that. (He also might do the opposite, but I’ll note that Smart shot 34.9 percent on wide-open 3s last year and 36 percent in the pre-hiatus portion of this season, per pretty good!) 

That said, Toronto did have Leonard to provide the initial resistance on Antetokounmpo, and it did have Gasol to take Embiid’s bumps. And while it hasn’t mattered much in the regular season, Walker can’t do what the Raptors’ small guards do defensively. If I am making the case that Boston’s cadre of creators will target weak links in the postseason, I can’t just wave away the Walker issue by talking about everybody else’s length and anticipation. I can’t ignore that the Raptors had a combination of experience, intelligence and resilience that might be impossible to replicate, either. 

The weirdness of the bubble environment probably means that the title race is less predictable than it was in March. In that context, the Celtics’ numbers shouldn’t be dismissed. I still want to see more of that no-bigs lineup. I fully believe that versatility and skill can triumph over size and power, and I can see scenarios in which Boston shocks the world. I just wouldn’t predict it. 

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