As presently constructed, the Boston Celtics 926-17) are not an elite NBA club.
That was reinforced this past week as the C’s lost back-to-back home games to below-.500 teams, in the New York Knicks (117-106) last Wednesday and the Portland Trail Blazers (127-123) this past Saturday. The Celtics are currently the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but there hasn’t been much to suggest they could pull of an upset against either the Cleveland Cavaliers or Toronto Raptors and reach the Eastern Conference Finals – let alone the NBA Finals.
That said … it’s cool. The C’s aren’t winning the championship this year, because Golden State (37-6), San Antonio (34-9), Houston (34-13) and the aforementioned Cavs (30-12) are on an entirely different level. One of those four teams will win the title this season.
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What the Celtics can show their fans the rest of this season is progress, and so far in the Brad Stevens era – there’s been plenty of it. They went 25-57 in Stevens’ first year on the bench, then improved to 40-42 in 2014-15. They jumped up to 48-34 last season and this year you can safely pencil them in for another 48 wins. Two years ago, they were swept by the Cavs in the first round, but last year they nearly got out of the first round – taking the Atlanta Hawks to six games.
The goal for the rest of the season should be to reach the 50-win plateau. With 39 games remaining, they’d need to go 24-15 the rest of the way. Difficult, but do-able.
When they reach the playoffs, the goal should be to get into the second round, and take either the Cavs or Raptors to six or seven games.
Those are realistic goals for this group, as the Celtics haven’t showed us enough to have us expect more.
Lost in all the Isaiah Thomas buzz of late has been the fact that the Celtics just can’t hang with the top teams in the NBA. There have been plenty of wins over the likes of the Hornets, Hawks, Wizards, Sixers and Heat over the past two months, but when the C’s face the NBA’s upper-crust they typically can’t pull out a victory. Since the start of December, the C’s have lost to the Rockets, Raptors (twice), Thunder (twice), Spurs and Cavs. Their most impressive win in that stretch was a 115-104 home win over Utah (which currently has one more win that the Raptors).
In other words, the Celtics are good at taking care of business (aside from what we witnessed over the past week) but are almost always unable to take it to the league’s best.
Getting to the point where they can compete with the Golden States, Clevelands and San Antonios of the world will take a monster trade – something that Danny Ainge might find difficult to do at next month’s trade deadline. The Kevin Garnett-level major swaps are much easier to do when you have an entire summer to work out the details, and right now there just isn’t that franchise-altering name available on the trade market.
So, for now – baby steps it is. The Celtics should make things interesting in the next few months, but do not expect any drastic leaps.