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christopher l. gasper

If the Celtics are at their level best, they should flatten the remaining competition

Next up for Jayson Tatum & Co. are the Heat, whom the Celtics took down in the Eastern finals last year.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Forget “Beat the Heat” or “Beat LA.” Your Celtics are the team to beat for the NBA championship. If the playoffs were the Tour de France, the Celtics would be donning yellow leader jerseys, not green-and-white ones.

Analytics models and old-fashioned oddsmakers alike see the playoffs through green-eyed glasses. ESPN Analytics gives the Miami Heat a meager 3 percent chance of defeating the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, which commence on Causeway Street Wednesday. Odds in my inbox from BetOnline declared the Celtics owners of 11-10 odds (47.6 percent probability) to win the NBA title with the Denver Nuggets next at 11-5 (31.25 percent). Caesars Sportsbook also anointed Boston the clear favorite at plus-105, which translates to a 48.8 percent chance of winning the championship.


But you don’t have to engage in sports betting or analytics modeling to peg the Celtics as the best remaining team among the four — Celtics, Heat, Nuggets, and LeBron James’s Lakers — in the playoffs. That just takes the eye test and rewatching their Game 7 demolition of regular-season MVP Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers behind a Game 7-record 51-point master class from Jayson Tatum.

This Celtics team is trying to reach a level it hasn’t before. At peak performance, their elevator reaches a level higher than any other team left in the postseason.

Boasting a pair of All-NBA wings, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston’s best is the best still around Adam Silver’s NBA postseason playground.

That’s both comforting and disconcerting because it means that with all due respect to the Heat, the Nuggets, and the remixed LeBrons, the team most capable of barring the Celtics from Banner No. 18 is … the Celtics.

The Nuggets have a slightly higher postseason offensive rating than the Celtics at 118.7 points per 100 possessions to Boston’s 118.1. Denver’s defensive rating is 110.1, but it was an average defensive team during the regular season.


But no one tops the Celtics’ 60.7 percent true shooting percentage, which takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws.

The Celtics’ defensive rating is 111 points per 100 possessions and dropping since Robert Williams was reinserted into the lineup. The Green were allowing 112 points per game before they held Philadelphia to 86 in Game 6 with Williams back starting. It’s now down to 108.3.

The Celtics love to hover their heels over the precipice just for kicks. They were four minutes and 15 seconds away from oblivion in Game 6 against the Sixers before dominating the final 52 minutes and 14 seconds of the series, outscoring Philadelphia, 126-91. It was a brilliant display of basketball.

Tatum’s record-breaking Game 7
Celtics reporter Gary Washburn talks about Jayson Tatum’s record-breaking performance in Game 7 vs the Sixers, and previews the upcoming Celtics-Heat series.

We know the Celtics respond with their best basketball when they’re called out and counted out. The challenge and part of earning their championship wings is doing that when they’re being counted upon, counted upon to deliver another banner to Boston.

The whole objective of this season was redemption and realization. It’s about redeeming themselves from letting the NBA Finals slip away against Golden State and witnessing the Warriors partying into the wee hours here with the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

It’s also about realizing the potential they have with the Jays, venerable veteran Al Horford, heart-and-soul hustle guy/player-coach Marcus Smart, NBA Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, and 3-and-D guard Derrick White. The talent, chemistry, and necessary postseason calluses are all present.


The Celtics have participated in five of the last seven Eastern Conference finals. They broke through to the NBA Finals last season by downing the pesky Heat in seven games, the same Heat team that ousted them in the ECF in 2020 in six in the NBA COVID Bubble.

Smart and Brown will have appeared in all five conference finals. It’s No. 4 for Tatum.

That means one excuse used to preemptively exonerate this group when it was on the edge of elimination goes out the window — the idea that the Celtics are a young team, code for not ready to win yet. That’s a go-to for forced-positivity fans and media when things don’t go the Green’s way.

But it’s rarely ever raised when the 25-year-old Tatum is making a case for MVP or rains down 51 points in one of the greatest performances in NBA history. He’s ready. The team is ready now.

The Celtics Experience is to embrace the team’s lofty expectations, blissfully rejecting any consequences or trenchant criticism — outside of rookie coach Joe Mazzulla — for failing to meet said expectations.

It’s OK to raise expectations to raise a banner or cut us deep with disappointment.

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

The Heat are the basketball Baltimore Ravens. They’re tough, unafraid, and unaware that they should lose to a more talented team. Jimmy Butler & Co. are not going to be intimidated. Last year, they were one Butler three from rallying from a 3-2 deficit to clip the Celtics in the conference finals.


Last postseason, Butler bedeviled the Celtics.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Coach Erik Spoelstra is going to throw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at the Celtics.

Denver boasts two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who is averaging 30.7 points per game this postseason, has a 53-point playoff performance, and has the highest assist game this playoffs (17). Those games came back-to-back against Phoenix. Jokic will shred the double teams and digs that flummoxed Embiid.

Even at age 38, LeBron is still LeBron, replete with a rich history against the Celtics. He was once the young star with the New Big Three Celtics blocking his ascension. Now, he could be the gatekeeper of greatness standing in the way of the current Celtics again.

The Celtics wield the Excalibur of the contemporary NBA: 3-point proficiency. Boston boasts the best 3-point percentage in the playoffs, shooting 39.5 percent.

No team in the playoffs has scored a higher percentage of its points via the three (39.9), which is the ultimate weapon in today’s game. Conversely, they’re last out of 16 clubs in percentage of points via 2-pointers (46.6), which is by Mazzulla’s design. The Lakers (55.2) and Nuggets (54.9) are second and third in that category, attempting more twos.

Add it all up and these Celtics are in prime position to etch their names along the teams of lore.

The Celtics aren’t chasing a championship. They’re being chased for one.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @cgasper.