The Celtics are in Prime Position to Challenge the Bucks After NBA Resumes
The coronavirus-related suspension of the NBA season has left basketball fans only with classic games on NBA League Pass. While you are sinking your teeth into the 2008 Celtics demolishing the Lakers in Game 6 or Gordon Hayward’s regular season career-high 39 points this past November, Brad Stevens and company are looking forward to having a team at full strength whenever the season restarts.
Among the current 16 playoff teams, only three have had more different starting lineups this season than the 43-21 Celtics: the 44-20 Los Angeles “DNP - rest” Clippers, the 40-27 Dallas Mavericks, and the 39-26 Philadelphia 76ers, but the Clippers, Mavericks, and 76ers do not have multiple top-20 5-player combinations among playoff teams in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Celtics have two combinations that are among the best 20. Boston joins Milwaukee, Utah, and Toronto with two such combinations, but the Bucks and Jazz have been healthy enough to have just 18 different starting lineups combined this season; the Celtics have a total of 18 unique starting lineups. Although the Raptors have almost as many 2019-20 man games lost as the Celtics, Boston is leading the season series, 2-1 (1-0 in games in which Pascal Siakam played).
For all those wondering, the two Celtics lineups that have dominated this season are the following:
15th: Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, and Daniel Theis
19th: Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, Daniel Theis, and Jaylen Brown
The players in each lineup are in order by decreasing VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). The first of the two lineups includes Marcus Smart (64th in NBA VORP this season), while the second one has Brown (85th). Theis (65th) has been such a pleasant surprise for the Celtics, who headed into 2019-20 seemingly without a big man.
The Celtics two stars Tatum and Walker, who are both in the top 20 in VORP, will attempt to lead this Celtics team to its first NBA Finals appearance since 2010. If the regular season ended today, Stevens would finish with his best winning percentage for an NBA season, and he is hoping for his best finish in the postseason as well. The previous best regular season team for Stevens was coincidentally his best postseason one as well. With the likes of Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Tatum, Brown, Smart, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes, Stevens almost pulled off an Eastern Conference Finals victory against the Cavs, the team with the best player in the conference at the time, LeBron James. What would have been if the Celtics had a healthy Kyrie Irving, Hayward, and Theis in that season?
Well, flash forward two seasons later and the Celtics are in prime position to take down the team with the Eastern Conference’s best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Theis are two years older and much improved, and the Celtics have Walker and Hayward. This time around, the Celtics project to be healthy. The injuries to Walker and Brown that occurred before the suspension of the NBA season will have been alleviated. Unfortunately, Smart was diagnosed with COVID-19, but has not displayed symptoms. The rest of the Celtics have been tested, and there have been no other positive results reported.
Not only do the Celtics have what it takes to make the 2020 NBA Finals – whether it will be played in June, July, or August – but they also have a chance to win it. The Celtics have split the season series thus far with the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks and Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers, with each team winning on their own home court. Boston is the only Eastern Conference team currently in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency; the only other team in the NBA who can say the same thing: the Lakers, who have former Celtics Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley in the rotation.
On January 20, Walker defeated LeBron for the first time in his career, as the Celtics scored more than 32 points in each quarter and blew out the Lakers, 139-107. The Lakers returned the favor at Staples Center with a two-point victory one month later. However, with it being one decade since the most storied rivalry in the NBA was renewed in the Finals, we will have to see if the healthy 2019-20 Celtics can get revenge on LeBron and the Lakers.