An NBA champion as both a player and a coach, Rick Carlisle knows a thing or two about getting to the NBA Finals. So the praise that he heaped on the Boston Celtics following their victory over Carlisle's Dallas Mavericks on Monday night carried some extra heft.
"[The Celtics have] got a legitimate chance to get to the Finals with that team out of the East," Carlisle said. "It's a very, very good basketball team. ... Their ability to score [is elite] and they have great depth. They have a lot of guys that have gained experience. I just see them as a real threat."
The Celtics have played some excellent basketball since mid-December when All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas returned from a brief absence due to a groin strain. As Thomas has muscled his way into the MVP conversation based largely on his absurd fourth-quarter production, the Celtics have won a league-best 23 games since his return on December 16 (a feat matched by the Golden State Warriors and the surging Washington Wizards).
Entering that date, Boston stood at 13-12 overall and was tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics sat 5.5 games back of the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers and five games behind second-place Toronto Raptors.
But as the Cavaliers and Raptors have both endured recent rough patches, the Celtics have surged to the No. 2 spot in the East. After Monday's win in Dallas, Boston sits just two games back of Cleveland (including just one game in the win column). Maybe more improbably, the Celtics own a 2.5 game buffer over the nearest trailing competitor (Washington) and a four-game lead over the Hawks and free-falling Raptors.
The NBA Finals? Well, that's a bit ambitious for a team that hasn't made it out of the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons. But given Boston's position in the Eastern Conference, it's a fair suggestion.
According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, the Celtics own the fourth best odds at making the Finals at 19.8 percent. Only the Warriors (79.2 percent), Cavaliers (44 percent) and Raptors (25.1 percent) have better odds.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle says the Celtics have a "legitimate chance to get to the NBA Finals." BPI currently gives them the 4th best odds: pic.twitter.com/6WnAisIGHN
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) February 14, 2017
What's maybe most impressive about Boston's recent success is that the Celtics have done it while missing at least one starter in every game since early in the new calendar year. Avery Bradley has been sidelined for all but one game with an Achilles strain since January 6 but the Celtics are 13-5 in his absence even as Boston has battled other injuries during that stretch forcing Brad Stevens to constantly patch holes in his rotations.
In Boston's 30-game span since mid-December, the Celtics own the third best offensive rating in the league while averaging 112.3 points per 100 possessions. This is no small feat for a team that ranked near the middle of the pack last season (13th, 103.9) and often endured maddening stretches where it couldn't generate consistent offense. As Thomas makes a run at Larry Bird's franchise scoring record -- he sits just 0.1 points behind Bird's record 29.9 points per game during the 1987-88 season -- the Celtics have had little trouble putting up points this season.
There are still strides to be made defensively. The Celtics, who tied for the fourth best defensive rating last season, rank 19th in the NBA this season while allowing 106.2 points per 100 possessions. While they've played better in stretches during this 30-game sample, they still rank 16th with a defensive rating of 107.5 in that span.
Fortunately for the Celtics, their gaudy offensive numbers have allowed them to get away with not playing the same level of defense. During their last 30 games, the Celtics rank fifth in the NBA in net rating (plus-4.8) trailing only the Warriors, Spurs, Wizards and Hornets. That's a quintet that sits among the seven best records in the league overall.
The Celtics close out the first half of the season this week with a visit from Philadelphia on Wednesday and then a national TV game against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night. Stevens and his coaching staff will travel to New Orleans to coach the East All-Stars, a reflection of Boston's strong play in the first half of the season.
You can bet Stevens will be more focused on what comes after this weekend (and we're not just talking about next Thursday's trade deadline). Boston has two more upcoming national TV matchups, games against the Raptors (Feb. 24) and Cavaliers (March 1) that will offer Boston a chance to further assert itself as a legitimate contender in the East.
Any suggestion about Boston in the NBA Finals is absolutely premature. The Celtics must continue to focus on getting better. And health will go a long way to determining how competitive they will be in mid-April and beyond.
But Thomas has been otherworldly; Al Horford has made Thomas better with his presence on the floor; Jae Crowder has dramatically improved his efficiency; Marcus Smart is maybe the league's most underrated player; and Boston is getting key contributions from the likes of Kelly Olynyk and rookie Jaylen Brown (who before injuring his hip was playing key starter minutes with Bradley out).
That someone like Carlisle thinks Boston has the potential to get to the league's grandest stage is a reflection of how the rest of the NBA is taking notice of the strides the Celtics have made.
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