Boston Celtics: Beasts of the East?

The 2021-22 NBA regular season had its fair share of ups and downs for several teams. Brooklyn, Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Golden State, Utah, Dallas, New Orleans, and, of course, the Lakers all come to mind as teams that took winding roads to their final destinations in the standings.

No team had quite the ride of the Boston Celtics, however. On Dec. 29 of last year, the Celtics lost a 91-82 slog of a game at home to the Clippers. Jayson Tatum was out with COVID amid the period where the omicron variant wreaked havoc on every rotation in the league, and the loss dropped Boston to 16-19, only good enough for 10th in the East and barely hanging onto the final play-in spot on winning percentage.

It took the Celtics until the end of January to stay above .500 for good, but when the dust settled on the standings on April 10 to close out the regular season, the Celtics finished as the No. 2 seed in the East. There's never been a turnaround like it in league history.

The Celtics' play has been at such a high level that they should be considered the favorites to come out of a stacked Eastern Conference, despite being behind the Bucks and Nets in the odds at most books.

A lot of attention has been paid to the Celtics' defense, and for very good reason. Boston was the league's best defense in the regular season and features a rotation full of plus defenders.

Marcus Smart is the betting favorite for Defensive Player of the Year and would be the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton in 1995-96. Robert Williams is probable to be on one of the two All-Defense teams, and his versatility to switch on the perimeter, help on drives, and protect the rim may be unparalleled in the league this season.

But Boston's offensive leap is the reason it has a great opportunity to go to the Finals.

Before the All-Star Break, the Celtics were just 18th in offensive efficiency. After the break, they've been the best in the league. The biggest reason for Boston's scoring prowess has been the superstar leap of Jayson Tatum, who will wind up on quite a few MVP ballots after a season averaging 27-8-4 on almost 21 shots per game. Jaylen Brown's almost 24 points per game is a heck of a No. 2 option, and he's been shooting even better than Tatum over the past couple of months.

Smart, Williams, and Al Horford can all provide buckets when needed, and the acquisition of Derrick White from San Antonio at the trade deadline has provided a scoring and playmaking boost off the bench.

The Celtics' playoff reward for playing at a 60-win pace since the new year and being close to unbeatable since the beginning of February is merely Kevin Durant, eligible-in-every-game Kyrie Irving, the Nets, and the blockbuster series of the first round of the playoffs. Plus, they'll have to win this round without Williams, who looks to be out another two to three weeks after hand surgery at the end of March.

But this is also a Nets team with a very thin rotation and no promises of a Ben Simmons season debut within the next two weeks. Durant and Irving will score their points, and Andre Drummond may have an easier time without Williams around — just as he prospered against Cleveland without Jarrett Allen in the play-in. It's hard to see this dynamic version of the Celtics struggling to score in bunches against the Nets, though.

The path wouldn't get any easier from there, with Milwaukee the likely opponent in the second round. Williams would absolutely be required to try to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo. But to Boston's credit, the Celtics didn't settle for the 4-seed to avoid K.D. and Giannis when they had the chance to at the end of the regular season.

The other side of the East draw is more complicated to predict thanks to Miami's hit-or-miss offense and the Sixers being down their best perimeter defender in Toronto. It won't be easy for the Celtics, but when you consider they've been at a Phoenix-like level for the last few months, Boston should be considered the likeliest to make it to the Finals out of the East.

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