The Celtics are Confident Heading into the Playoffs

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Austin Barach

After a frustrating loss to the Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat last Tuesday, the Celtics have rattled off four consecutive victories (when playing their top 6 players) and have clinched the number three seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs in the process of doing so.

It’s been a pleasure watching the Celtics play basketball over these last four at least somewhat meaningful games. They’ve looked like they have a pep in their step, and the local broadcast against the Grizzlies brought up a fascinating graphic about the team assist numbers that sums up what the ole’ “eye test” has backed up:

TeamTeam Assists per Game
Celtics, first three seeding games19.0
Celtics, last four (real) seeding games29.3
The Celtics have racked up 27+ assists against each of their last four non-Wizards opponents. Boston is 14-0 this season when they have at least 27 assists.

It’s been so fun to watch the C’s that after another one of their 3-5 minute amazing stretches of ball movement and rhythm, that Jayson Tatum will check-in and I’ll think to myself oh wow and now Tatum’s coming in. This thought has applied to several other guys as well: Wait, we did all that and now Kemba’s entering the game? Or, stache Hayward is now calmly checking in and we just went on a 12-2 run without him? Oh, man. I mean, I’m not even going to mention Jaylen in here but it’s the same idea with.

With the team playing well, it makes perfect sense that the individual players are also playing well. Gordon Hayward continues to play with an edge, but with a controlled edge. The stache on him makes me believe in him so much. He’s really elevating in the midrange game and driving with a purpose, and that’s the key for him. When he would play timidly at times in the past, he didn’t drive with a purpose, but would rather drive just for the sake of putting the ball on the ground and sort of hoping that something good would happen. The difference, especially in the bubble for him, is that he has so much confidence in his drives. He consistently attacks hard but also deliberately and makes the right play, whether that be a pull-up, a layup, an elite kick-out pass, or a dump-off pass down low. The dude has scored 15+ in every game except for the Raptors game (because the Celtics didn’t need him to) and has also demonstrated some hidden explosiveness, such as this play against the Grizzlies which made me say aloud “oh, hey now:”

While Hayward has been such a stabilizing force for the Celtics in the bubble, Jaylen Brown might be just as impactful as a stabilizer. Although he’s actually averaged slightly under his season scoring average, the game, similar to Hayward, seems to be coming very easy to him. He knows what he brings to the table and excels in his role as that complimentary piece. He’s been locked in on defense and his three-point stroke has been clean. I haven’t been more confident in his deep shots going in than I have watching him in the bubble. Jaylen’s focused energy will be crucial in the playoffs.

I think it’s a good indication of how well the Celtics have been playing lately that their two All-Stars are just being given their shine at this point in the article. Post-Bucks game Jayson Tatum, who sucked, has since bounced back to the tune of 25+ PPG and almost 49% from deep on over 3.5 three-point makes per game. The side-step threes, the midrange fadeaways, it’s all been back in Tatum’s bag. He can still improve with finishing at the rim, but pre-shutdown Jayson is back and that’s the single most important factor for the Celtics and their ceiling this postseason. Kemba Walker by all accounts has rounded back into All-Star form as well. Averaging just 25 minutes per game in the seeding games, but playing 32 minutes in the overtime game against the Magic, he’s been good for 14-19 points in all but one game and has shot almost 43% from deep while playing with spirited defense and bounciness on offense. Speaking of the tremendous shooting numbers, consider this:

This tweet was from August 10, so it doesn’t take into account the Grizzlies game. Still very impressive.

From a casual fan’s perspective, Marcus Smart has had a quiet bubble thus far. I mean, in three of his seven games, he’s scored three points or fewer and is averaging under nine points per game for all seven of his seeding games. But there hasn’t been a time when I’ve watched him in Orlando here and thought, you know, Smart sucks. Get him off the court. He needs to be better. Smart has simply continued to be a winner. He just makes winning plays, plays with an edge, and does his job. I’ve actually been very impressed with how quick, and seemingly effortlessly, he slides his feet on defense to keep drivers in front of him. Here is defensive sequence that I think encapsulates his tremendous value to this team:

Even in a 22-point game, Smart switches onto VanVleet, spins off the pick, pesters VanVleet, then dives on the ground to secure possession and passes up to trigger the fast break.

He had another classic sequence against the Grizzlies where he boxed out, fought for the rebound, tiptoed along the baseline, and volley-ball bumped it out to the outlet man as he dove out of bounds. It was so good that even Brad Stevens showed his appreciation by helping him up.

Daniel Theis has continued to be solid for the C’s. His constant activity and high-motor have helped out the rest of the team. He also made a terrific pass on the move during the throttling of the defending champion Raptors, as he caught it on his right side and whipped it across to the left side to hit Tatum for a dagger-three.

Brad Wanamaker has been pleasantly not terrible, putting up almost 10 PPG in nearly 20 MPG, on an efficient 59% shooting clip. I actually don’t cringe and hold my breath whenever he is put into a decision-making situation anymore. Kanter hasn’t played that much, but when he is on the court he’s been solid. However, the larger non-Theis big man story has been the surprisingly consistent spark plug that’s been Robert Williams. The “Timelord,” in the four-game winning streak, when he played substantial minutes (14.8) amongst the normal rotation, averaged 11.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.8 BPG, and shot 19-23 from the field (82.6%). The Celtics had a net rating of +32.4 with him on the court in those minutes. As I quickly mentioned in the observations from the scrimmages article, I enjoy how Williams contests shots because of how much ground he covers with his wingspan and leaping ability. In these real games, he was actually blocking some of his contests, while also catching plenty of lobs on the offensive end. I think he played himself into an 8-12 minute role for the playoffs, with the potential of playing 15-20 minutes in a random game or two when the Celtics need an athletic change-of-pace presence.

Robert Williams throwing down a dunk off of a pass from Brad Wanamaker against the Nets.

The Celtics’ first-round playoff opponent is the Sixers. Philly will be limping in, in regards to both their injuries and their uninspiring play. Ben Simmons underwent surgery on his knee and is expected to miss at least the opening round. Joel Embiid has been nicked up lately as well but should be good to go. I know the Sixers took the season series three games to one, but it was the first time that they won the season series in five or six years, plus the Celtics ousted them in five games in the 2018 playoffs with a rookie Tatum and Terry Rozier as the leading scorers. With no Simmons, the Sixers will be in a much more difficult situation to create shots for others and push the ball in transition. It also gives them one fewer defender to throw on one of the Celtics’ four 18+ PPG perimeter scorers. With Simmons, I would probably pick the Celtics to win in 6, but without him, I still oddly think the C’s will win in 6 because Embiid will go off for something like 43 points and 21 rebounds in one game, and then the Celtics will have an out of rhythm game offensively that coincides with a random Tobias Harris and Furkan Korkmaz game that concludes with a dagger shot from Mattise Thybulle. In any case, I think that Boston will exert its will on Philadelphia in most of the games and send them out of the bubble. I’ll conclude with this graphic of the 22 bubble teams’ offensive and defensive ratings as of August 10, which include Boston in the best quadrant and Philly in a decent location:

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