Celtics: Sizing up the competition

By Maxwell Pardis

The Celtics have played extremely well with the season nearing the 20 game mark and as they are on pace for the coveted sign of sustained elitism during the regular season: 60 wins. 

However, the road to the NBA Finals will not be easy. The Celtics are one of three teams in the Eastern Conference on track to hit the 60 win mark, with Philadelphia and Miami not too far behind. With these teams all jumbled near the top, it can be tough to discern who the favorite should be. How do the Celtics stack up? 

Since win-loss records cannot provide a clear picture, the next obvious point to look at is the point differential, or the average scoring margin, for each team. Out of the Eastern elite, Philadelphia is predictably the lowest at 4.9 after dealing with the brief suspension of star center Joel Embiid. Of the remaining four, Boston sports the lowest point differential, coming in 0.2 points behind Miami’s 6.5, ranking seventh and sixth in the league respectively. The Milwaukee Bucks leads the entire National Basketball Association in this category with an earth-shattering 12.4, and the Toronto Raptors are fourth at 8.1. 

The Raptor’s resume is quite impressive so far. They rank in the top ten in both offensive and defensive rating, according to BasketballReference, which is the statistical benchmark often used to parse out championship contenders from the pretenders. This proves a team has the balance needed to advance in the playoffs, and balance is certainly the perfect word for this Raptors team. They have remarkable depth, withstanding an injury to Kyle Lowry, and have an emerging MVP candidate in Pascal Siakam, who has made yet another leap this season. 

Nick Nurse also won me over as a coach, showcasing more and more offensive creativity since last year’s regular season. The Raptors are a solid team, and I always enjoy watching Siakam play, but their team feels more like a regular-season feel-good story than a serious finals threat. They win with depth and not star power, which often flips on teams in the postseason where starters play heavier minutes. I trust the Celtics against the Raptors in a playoff series. 

The other team that can boast top ten efficiencies on both sides of the ball, other than Toronto and Boston, are the Bucks. Despite losing Malcolm Brogdon in free agency, the Bucks have not missed a beat thus far, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is absolutely terrifying. He is even better than last year, willing the Bucks to wins despite not quite having the weapons they did last year. 

The Celtics lost Al Horford, their best defender against Antetokounmpo in years past. There are reasons for the Celtics fan to be optimistic, though. Milwaukee surrounds Antetokounmpo with a lackluster roster, and though coach Mike Budenholzer is great at generating regular-season wins, the question of whether or not he can succeed at making adjustments over the course of a playoff series remains. Milwaukee should be the finals favorites right now, but they are not unbeatable. 

The 76ers are a different animal and are worth a column all of their own. Their defense is elite, but the offense is mediocre. Embiid’s suspension definitely affects these numbers, but so does their 25th ranked strength of schedule. Boston’s strength of schedule is not very high either, but they have at least proven themselves against top teams like the Clippers, and Philadelphia still looks a little disjointed. Ben Simmons did not take over without Embiid like two years ago, and Tobias Harris is the current scapegoat amongst Sixers fans. They need more time to jell, and we will learn more when they visit Beantown next Thursday, but at this early juncture, the C’s appear to be the superior team. 

As for Miami, they are starting to feel like the odd team out. They are not as deep as Toronto, nor do they have the top tier talent of Milwaukee, Philadelphia, or even Boston with their quintet of borderline all-stars. By the numbers, the Heat rate very evenly with the Celtics, residing just outside the top ten on offense and seventh in defense, which is one spot below and two spots above Boston respectively. 

When the Heat came to Boston on Wednesday the Celtics took care of business, winning by ten with credit to Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart. The onus is now on Miami to prove they belong rubbing elbows with the best of the East. As for the Celtics, they are now the second seed in the conference, and it looks like it’s staying that way.