I’ve seen enough from the Celtics in a couple of different ways.
I’ve seen enough to fully believe. Forty-nine games and 35 wins into the season, they are the best team in the NBA and, at full strength, deserve to be considered the favorite to win the title come June.
Generations of Celtics fans know what a championship team looks like, the vibe, the connection on the court and camaraderie off it, and this team has all the crucial criteria: superstar power, a half-dozen other versatile, excellent players, quality depth, trustworthy coaching, and a collective motivation to rise up, crush all challengers, avenge all painful defeats, and win it all.
In a broader sense, this particular generation of Boston sports fans can spot a team capable of getting the duck boats revved up long before any trophies are hoisted or confetti falls. It doesn’t always work out the way you expect, of course, but those 12 championships the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins have collected since 2001 have lent fans an innate expertise on identifying a champion-in-the-making. And these Celtics look the part.
I’ve also seen enough to know it’s time to be prudent. Forget about prioritizing winning the top seed. Don’t sweat the surging-team-of-the-moment, which was the Nets a month ago and is now the Sixers, currently 4 games back in the Eastern Conference. Don’t worry about weird hiccups like yet another loss to the frisky Magic Monday night. Regular-season matters? They hardly matter. Forget about January. Focus on June.
This Celtics team — with its top eight players rested and in good health — can beat anyone anywhere. The priority going forward must be to make sure those eight players — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White, and Grant Williams — are as healthy and rested as possible for the postseason gauntlet. Nothing else is as important. Nothing else comes close.
In the Celtics’ 121-118 overtime win over the Warriors last Thursday, interim coach Joe Mazzulla went all-out to win. Tatum played a Havlicekian 48:07, including the final 39 minutes. Brown, Smart, Brogdon, and Horford all played at least 35, while Robert Williams played 27:04, just the fourth time in his first 14 games since returning from offseason knee surgery that he exceeded 23 minutes. Mazzulla also shortened the bench, playing nine players but giving White, Grant Williams, and Luke Kornet just a combined 37:47.
That was the right way to go. This meant more than just any old regular-season game to the Celtics, having lost the Finals to the Warriors in six games last season and taking another wallop to the nose in a 123-107 loss in San Francisco Dec. 10, which sent them into a brief slump. This one mattered to the players; Horford, who was superb in Thursday’s matchup and always is a beacon of perspective, acknowledged, “I wanted to win really bad.”
Kudos to Mazzulla for recognizing that, coaching accordingly, and giving us some insight into how he will manipulate the lineups in the postseason. His decisions in that game furthered my belief that he is indeed the Right Person For The Job.
But the very next game brought a reminder of how delicate all of this is. The Celtics went into Saturday night’s matchup with the Raptors in Toronto without Tatum, who sat out with left wrist soreness but could have been designated as a “dude just needs a break” absence.
Before the first half was over, Tatum wasn’t the only regular missing. Smart had to be helped off after rolling his ankle, and Robert Williams hyperextended his left knee after an awkward collision with Brown. Williams actually played 10 more minutes after that, but both injuries caused Celtics fans to hold their breath, and I’m not sure everyone has fully exhaled yet.
It appears that significant injury has been dodged in both cases, but the reminder of how tenuous all of this is came through louder than Williams’s yell after the collision, which could be heard on the NBC Sports Boston broadcast.
As they reminded us in Toronto while enduring that in-game attrition (White and Grant Williams also took their lumps), the Celtics are still an excellent team even when the full varsity isn’t available on a given night.
Payton Pritchard, who hit four 3-pointers against Toronto, would be a trustworthy rotation player for virtually every team in the league, and a starter for many. For the Celtics, he’s a blessing and a luxury, a player worthy of more minutes and one who seizes his opportunities when they come along.
That quality depth will help the Celtics, who, without Smart, Rob Williams, and Brogdon saw their nine-game winning streak ended against the Magic, navigate the remainder of the regular season with sustained success.
Thirty-three regular-season games remain. They’ll each feel meaningful in the moment, sure. But they aren’t, at least compared with what comes after, what the Celtics are preparing for, the mission that seems so possible.
The Celtics got their affirming win over the Warriors, and followed it up with a couple of injury scares, reminders of how fleeting this can be. Mazzulla’s assignment is obvious right now: minimize those minutes for the top eight when necessary, prioritize June over January, and do everything in his power to make sure a banner regular season leads to a banner of the much more satisfying kind.