What a time to be a Celtics fan in the NBA. The Boston Celtics are the hottest team in the bubble as they are coming off a 4-0 sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers and are now up 2-0 to the reigning champion, Toronto Raptors. The Celtics entered the NBA Playoffs as the 3rd seed in the East, being looked at as second fiddle to Milwaukee or Toronto and were not a strong favorite come playoff time. However, the Celtics have a record-best 6-0 record in the playoffs and show no signs of slowing down. However, is it too far of a stretch to call the Boston Celtics the best team in the NBA bubble?
Are The Celtics Proving They Are The Best In The Bubble?
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As stated before, Boston was among the Eastern Conference’s top-tier bunch this season. However, they were still not seen as a plausible championship contender to teams like the Bucks or Raptors. Flash forward months later, after a four-month hiatus and being thrown into an unprecedented environment that is the bubble, things look a whole lot different.
The Bucks look to be extremely vulnerable, and have shown cracks in their armor game one against the Orlando Magic and again in game one against the Miami Heat. Although the Bucks made quick work of the Magic in the next four games, there was cause for concern within the organization that this group may not be as strong as advertised.
The Bucks held a 40-29 lead against the Heat in game one but proceeded to watch it shrink and eventually cave in, with Jimmy Butler and company surpassing Giannis Antetokoumpo and the Bucks. A late-game collapse by Milwaukee combined with Jimmy Butler taking over in clutch time and finishing with a playoff career-high 40 points allowed Miami to pull away 115-104.
Miami is looking like a cohesive unit and a real threat to knock off the top seed in the East. If the Bucks are not careful and can’t right the ship in time, the ringing effect from a potential elimination could be detrimental to the team’s long term future. As of this article’s publishing, the Heat are up 2-0 after a game two victory, 116-114.
The Los Angeles Lakers had an early playoff scare that got blown a little out of proportion, along with a few instances of luck on their behalf. They dropped the first game of round one to the Portland Trail Blazers, who were riding a wave of momentum for their performance in the bubble. The Lakers could not shoot the ball, LeBron James showed some signs of aging, and the supporting cast looked flawed.
The Lakers were able to pull away with four consecutive wins, with Damian Lillard leaving the bubble early with a right knee injury. Not to discount the Lakers’ performance with Lillard’s injury, they were able to turn it around just enough to scoot past Portland, and now face the winner of the Houston Rockets–Oklahoma City Thunder game seven on Wednesday night.
Both teams pose a major threat to the Lakers, who, outside of James and Anthony Davis, don’t have a real identity in their supporting cast. It’ll be up to the Danny Greens, the JaVale McGees, the Kyle Kuzmas, et cetera et cetera, of the team to keep pace with the star duo, because they haven’t done a very solid job thus far.
You can survive lapses like the ones they experienced in round one for the first round. But as their playoff run goes deeper, it’s going to come down to the better team. Which team can survive and advance? You can have the best player in a series, but it won’t always win you a series.
The Clippers have had an awkward go of it within the bubble thus far. They should be dominating the competition on both ends of the floor. They possess an elite combination of offense and defense with players excelling in a variety of attacks top to bottom. Their depth is comparable to a select few teams starting five. However, underlying reasons have made their road to the finals rockier than needed.
The Clippers prevailed against the Dallas Mavericks 3-2, but the series raised some concerns for the City of Angels. Luka Doncic was unbelievable and put up superstar numbers as he single-handedly pushed the Clippers to six games. The Clippers couldn’t find a way to stop the 21-year-old phenom, but they were able to shut down the rest of the Mavericks.
Kawhi Leonard‘s running mate Paul “Playoff P” George had a disaster of a series. He shot the ball inefficiently and he couldn’t keep up with Leonard’s level of play. It could’ve cost his team the series.
The Clippers are headed for a collision course with the Denver Nuggets, led by Nikola Jokic and budding star Jamal Murray. If the Clippers cannot bounce back from a shaky first round with a strong showing against Denver, then this experiment might be for nothing. The Clippers have not been the dominant force many thought they were coming into this season. Fortunately, there’s still time for them to disprove that notion.
Where Do The Celtics Fit With These Teams?
The Celtics, like just about every other team, took a little while to start clicking once the bubble got underway. They posted a 5-3 record in the seeding games and looked strong in most games, but there were clearly still holes in their attack. The first round saw them make quick work of a dysfunctional Ben Simmons-less 76ers team. Boston swept Philly 4-0 and looked dominant for the most part of that series.
Flash-forward to the current second round and the Celtics see themselves up 2-0 against the Toronto Raptors. They handled Toronto easily in game one, pulling away 112-94. Then in game two, the Celtics squeaked by 102-99. To dive a little deeper into both games to this point, the momentum is all on Boston’s side.
Jayson Tatum‘s Continued Rise To Superstardom…
Jayson Tatum has looked like the best player in this series, far and away. He’s carried the load offensively, consistently hitting his shots at a high rate while also playing tremendous defense on the opposite end. His counterpart, Pascal Siakam, has not had a very big impact in the series to this point.
…And Jaylen Brown Is Not Too Far Behind
Tatum’s running mate, Jaylen Brown, has also had a strong showing in these playoffs. He too has found a groove on both ends of the floor and that has given Toronto fits. He has helped neutralize Toronto’s backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry while also providing a strong contribution on offense in Gordon Hayward’s absence.
Although Kemba Walker did not have a strong game two, he did help put the Raptors away with a clutch signature step back jumpsuit in the closing minute. We’ve seen flashes of Cardiac Kemba in the bubble that we haven’t seen often in the regular season, which is a dangerous sign for a vulnerable Toronto team.
Marcus Smart Making Winning Plays
Not to mention Marcus Smart’s ability to make winning plays that Toronto does not have anyone to match. Whether it is making the extra pass, hustling for loose balls, or in game two’s case, hitting five consecutive three-point shots in the fourth quarter after trailing 78-70.
Yes, the Celtics have young star power in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and an All-NBA point guard in Kemba Walker. However, Marcus Smart is what makes this team a championship contender. His play elevates the intensity that his team plays with. It has been what has led them on this hot streak in the playoffs.
Robert Williams‘ Emergence
Heading into the playoffs, there were several questions about the Celtics bubble bench and how it would fare against a very strong Raptors bench. With Marcus Smart bumped to the starting lineup, that left the bench unit without their top scorer.
Enter Robert Williams.
The man known as “The Timelord” has emerged as a key contributor for Boston on both ends of the floor. Sending back shots on one end while dunking opponents through the floor on the other end. It’s been a welcome surprise for fans as Williams missed an extended period of time this season. Even when he was healthy, he often looked too raw to play big minutes.
Now, Boston has a secondary big man to combat Toronto’s center rotation in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come for the Timelord in Boston and not just a flash in the pan.
The Celtics are on a wave of momentum in the bubble. They took care of a dysfunctional 76ers team in quick fashion, and now they have Toronto on the ropes. The difference between the Raptors and Bucks is that the Raptors looked like the best “team” on the court this year, as their chemistry was among the best in the league. Their coaching staff along with their supporting cast were able to pick up the slack that Kawhi Leonard left and returned to the playoff picture.
Milwaukee has the best player on the planet right now. But, that play style and supporting cast are not as strong as Toronto’s is. Boston is exploiting the Raptors on both ends. If they can keep up this level of play, then both Milwaukee or Miami are in big trouble.
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