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Why Boston Will Finish First in the East

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The Boston Celtics are on pace for over 60 wins, despite a truly crazy first half of the season. I predict they will finish with the 1 seed in the East. They are the best regular season team in the conference, and will narrowly edge out both Toronto and Cleveland, and Brad Stevens will win what feels like a long overdue Coach of the Year award.

After Gordon Hayward’s opening night injury, it seemed everyone was ready to write off Boston’s season. But after starting 0-2, with losses to conference contenders Cleveland and Milwaukee, the Celtics managed to rattle off 16 straight wins. Between that crazy hot streak and the Cavs slow start, everyone was suddenly ready to hand the Eastern Conference to Boston.

The NBA regular season is full of ups and downs, not even Golden State is immune to that this year. But no team in the league has had to endure the hardships the Celtics have in 2017. The gruesome injury of their prized free agent signing and best overall player is enough by itself to derail a season. Add in the crazy schedule they’ve had to play so far, and it’s even more surprising how successful Stevens & Co. have been.

As of today, Boston is 30-10. Their 40 games played is the most in the league. The Celtics have played six more games than the currently second-place Raptors (24-10). The main cause for this is Boston’s January 11th game in London against Philadelphia. To accommodate for that travel oddity in the middle of the season, the NBA overloaded their early season schedule.

Boston leads the league in games played on 1 day rest with 23. Only Phoenix (7) has played more 3-games-in-4-nights than Boston (6). The Celtics have played a whopping 1(!!) game on 2 days rest, compared to Brooklyn’s league-leading 11. The silver-lining to all this scheduling insanity is that Boston is still atop the Eastern Conference, with an easier second-half of the season coming their way. (credit: https://www.nbastuffer.com/2017-2018-nba-rest-days-stats/)

Brad Stevens might be the best coach in the NBA, ever. The Celtics were expected to face a great deal of adversity after an inordinate amount of roster turnover following a successful season. Not only have they not struggled, they have been one of the best teams in the NBA. Boston leads the league in Defensive Rating (100.7) despite replacing two of their best defensive players, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, with a 2nd year player and a rookie.

Speaking of that rookie, Danny Ainge won the 2017 NBA Draft, hands down. Jayson Tatum proved to be the most NBA ready of anyone in this year’s rookie class (this doesn’t include Ben Simmons, who was drafted in 2016), and Ainge swindled an extra 2018 lottery pick out of Philadelphia in the process. Get it? Process? But I digress…

Tatum has started every game for the Celtics, averaging 31 minutes per. He’s currently 56-118 (47.5%) from 3PT and shooting 51.2% from the field, while averaging 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. I expected Tatum to be good as a rookie. I did not expect him to shoot better from NBA three point range than he ever did in college or high school. His commitment to being great is on full display this year, and all evidence points to a long and successful career ahead of him.

It’s no secret that defense is what fuels the Celtics. On that note, Tatum is 9th in the league in Defensive Win Shares, tied with Joel Embiid. In all, Boston has 4 of the top 15 individual players in this stat. Marcus Smart leads the group, and Jaylen Brown and Al Horford also join Tatum. (credit: https://stats.nba.com/players/defense/?sort=DEF_WS&dir=-1)

Boston’s defense has made this first half of the season possible, but it’s Kyrie Irving and Al Horford who have truly led the way.

Kyrie is arguably having the best season of his career, as just about anyone could have predicted would happen in his first year out of LeBron’s shadow. He’s averaging slightly less points and assists than last season, but doing so at a more efficient rate. His 56% eFG is the highest of his career. Irving is also shooting a career-best 68.7% on shots within 3 feet of the rim, up from a mediocre 59% last season. Uncle Drew is flourishing in Boston’s offense.

Al Horford’s numbers won’t jump off the page at you. In fact, way too many people will look at his 13.8 points 7.8 rebounds per game and argue that Horford has been a disappointment. Those people would be wrong, and willfully neglecting the fact that Big Al leads the Celtics with 5.3 assists per game, or that he’s shooting 43% from 3PT. Most notable though for those who are watching has been Horford’s improvements on the defensive end. Credit to Brad Stevens for playing him primarily at the 4 and unleashing a side of Al that, frankly, at age 31 nobody expected to see.

It’s hard to envision any scenario in which Brad Stevens doesn’t win Coach of the Year, because he will. Jayson Tatum will finish top three in Rookie of the Year (maybe he has a chance to win it, but I think it ultimately goes to Ben Simmons). The Boston Celtics will finish with the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Whether or not they can dethrone LeBron, will probably come down to health and a little bit of luck. But home-court advantage will certainly help, too.

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About Preston Dubey

Lifelong basketball fanatic and Bucks' supporter I coach basketball; but I eat, sleep, and breathe the game.

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