The Celtics have the best record in the NBA at 22-4 and are on pace to finish with the fourth best regular season record in NBA history at 68-14.
That said, no one thinks they can win the title this season.
The Celtics are still +750 to win it all, with three teams (Warriors -180, Cavs +550, Rockets +700) ahead of them according to OddsShark.com’s latest odds. Despite being THE BOSTON CELTICS and having one of the marquee players in the league in Kyrie Irving, the Celtics still aren’t getting the national respect they probably deserve at this juncture. And even if they finish with the league’s best record, it’s highly unlikely that the above odds with change all that much between now and mid-April.
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So, here’s the ultimate question: can the Celtics actually win it all this season?
Believe it or not, yes. Yes, they can. And here’s why:
The Hayward factor
Danny Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher and Rich this week that Hayward is just two weeks away from being able to take his walking boot off. The Celtics have been oddly mum about Hayward’s injury since it happened on opening night, rarely offering a true timetable for his return.
But as of right now, all signs are pointing toward Hayward being able to step back on the floor again by the end of the regular season.
The absurd length of the NBA regular season and the even more ridiculous length of the NBA Playoffs (two full months!) actually helps the Celtics here. It means that Hayward should be able to not only play in the playoffs – he should be able to knock off the rust and get back to 100 percent by the time the NBA Finals roll around in June (assuming the Celtics can get there, of course).
Obviously working the kinks out during playoff series’ is not ideal, but the Celtics are talented enough to get away with it in the first two rounds this year.
If Hayward is good to go, he would surely be the best in-season addition to any title contender this season.
Why they can beat Cleveland
When the Celtics pulled off the Kyrie Irving – Isaiah Thomas trade, it was thought to be mostly a wash on defense. Irving was regarded as bad a defender as Thomas. The only difference, most thought, was that Kyrie was taller and could at least get a hand in the face of opposing team’s shooters.
We’ve come to find out that Kyrie can be an excellent defensive player at times, much to the chagrin of jilted Cavs fans.
Kyrie helped limit standout Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr to a 4-of-16 shooting night Wednesday night and made a key steal from behind down the stretch to preserve a Celtics win.
Critics will say, meh, it’s the Mavericks – they suck. But in the Celtics’ 92-88 victory over the Warriors last month, Stephen Curry shot 3-of-14 from the floor and finished with a season-low nine points.
Expect Irving to be able to erase most of what Isaiah Thomas (who should be healthy by then) does on offense in a presumed Eastern Conference Finals showdown. It will also help that Brad Stevens knows all of Isaiah’s tricks.
As for that tiny matter of guarding LeBron James, the Celtics obviously cannot completely stop him. But they do have the personnel to at least slow him down some. LeBron said last year that Jaylen Brown was one of the sneaky good young defenders in the NBA and Stevens tends to agree as he often puts Brown one-on-one with LeBron. Obviously Brown will need help and that may come in the form of Marcus Morris. Morris helped hold LeBron to a season-low 16 points last year when he was a member of the Pistons and Detroit had decent success against the Cavs overall last year, going 2-2.
LeBron went off for 29 against the Celtics on opening night, but remember that Morris was not yet active.
Why they can beat Golden State
It can no longer be considered a fluke. Stevens and the Celtics know how to beat the Warriors.
They have a winning record against the NBA’s gold standard in the past three years with a 3-2 advantage.
So Stevens is the coach with the most success against the Warriors, and now the C’s have the player with the most success against the Dubs in Kyrie. Kyrie was the difference-maker in the 2016 NBA Finals when the Cavs rallied from a 3-1 hole to upset Golden State.
Like the Celtics with Hayward (though not nearly as severe), the Warriors are currently dealing with injuries to their own stars as Curry will miss the next two weeks with a sprained right ankle and Draymond Green is having shoulder issues.
You obviously can’t bank on injuries, but the Warriors are due for some bad luck in June one of these years. The Cavs endured costly injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie during the Finals trilogy between them and the Warriors. It may be Golden State’s turn to have to fight through injury issues on pro basketball’s grand stage.
All told, it’s crazy to say considering the Warriors unreal collection of stars, but the Celtics actually match up better with Golden State than Cleveland. Boston has been built to compete against a sharp-shooting, guard-heavy squad like the Warriors. The hope for Ainge during this whole process was that LeBron would either get old or would bolt to the Western Conference. Both could be on the horizon, but we’re not there yet.
If the Celtics can somehow slip past LeBron and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, then it’s game on in the NBA’s championship round. By then, for sure, the Celtics will have earned everyone’s respect.