Just like in recent seasons, the Boston Celtics showed their dominance to open the 2023-24 campaign. Just like in recent seasons, the Celtics have shown their vulnerabilities, too.
The Celtics (5-1) enter Wednesday’s marquee matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers (5-1) as one of the league’s only one-loss teams through its first six games. Boston also enters its nationally televised game on Wednesday only two days removed from losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves for reasons that have explained their previous playoff shortcomings.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown settled for too much one-on-one play. The Celtics lacked bench production (16 points). And they struggled with defending the opposing team’s best player (Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards had 38 points).
Too early to make any sweeping conclusions on Boston only two weeks into the 2023-24 campaign, this serves more as a belated season preview. Nonetheless, the Celtics will need to address two questions.
Major questions facing Boston Celtics in title quest
Can Boston return to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years after losing in seven games to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals? Can the Celtics finally win the NBA championship after appearing overwhelmed with the Golden State Warriors’ championship equity and their own health?
Boston hardly hesitated with signaling what it would do to rectify last season’s playoff finish.
The Celtics still prioritized their core around Tatum and Brown, who agreed to a five-year, $304 million supermax extension. Boston stayed patient with head coach Joe Mazzulla in his first season following Ime Udoka’s dismissal. And the Celtics found ways to upgrade their roster elsewhere.
Initially, it appeared the Celtics made a gamble that could backfire.
In a three-team trade, Boston acquired a versatile albeit injury-prone big man (Kristaps Porzingis) at the expense of their exceptional perimeter defender and leader (Marcus Smart).
Just when it appeared the Milwaukee Bucks thrust themselves as the NBA title favorites by acquiring Damian Lillard from Portland, however, the Celtics then acquired the Bucks’ former two-way player that made that initial Lillard trade happen (Jrue Holiday).
Instead, the Celtics have forged a strong identity that makes them NBA title favorites.
Tatum has ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring (30.5 points per game), while Brown complements him with 23.2 points per game (21st overall). Anyone who concluded that the Celtics should split up Tatum and Brown hasn’t watched them play enough. They have blossomed into stars. They have learned how to co-exist. And though they occasionally devote to isolation basketball in crunchtime, Tatum and Brown have shown the willingness to improve the team’s ball movement while salvaging their individual talent.
Porzingis has appeared dominant. He has not struggled whatsoever with figuring out how to produce offensively while fitting in with Tatum and Brown. While Porzingis has averaged 19.5 points per game to nearly mirror his career numbers (19.6), he has been on pace to average career-highs in field-goal percentage (55.2%) and 3-point shooting (45.2%).
In related news, Porzingis has enjoyed more open shots with defenders worrying more about Tatum and Brown. Porzingis has looked healthy, too. No longer does he seem limited from the injuries that plagued him in New York and Dallas. After improving his balance and weight last season in Washington, Porzingis looks just as durable to survive an 82-game season.
Boston may have started this season experiencing the growing pains with compensating for Smart’s leadership and defense. Instead, Holiday has seamlessly addressed the defensive concerns by slowing down the opposing team’s top scorers the same way he did with the Bucks, including during their 2021 NBA title run.
According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Holiday has already limited the New York Knicks’ Julius Randle (1-for-10), the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson (0-for-4), Washington’s Jordan Poole (1-for-4) and Indiana’s Buddy Hield (0-for-2). Holiday may not have the same relationships as Smart had with the Celtics’ stars and role players to enable him to call them out without backlash.
But Holiday has cemented himself with a strong reputation by relying on his talent and work ethic to set the example. With time, Holiday will eventually have a larger locker-room presence.
Of course, the Celtics’ loss to Minnesota should remind them that they are not invincible just because they have such a talented roster.
Tatum and Brown need to avoid the temptation to try to do everything on their own in crunch time. Porzingis will have to stay healthy. And the Celtics will need to prepare for every team giving them its best shot both for competitive and measuring-stick purposes.
As shown so far this season, the Boston Celtics have demonstrated they are championship material. As they painfully learned in past seasons, though, the Celtics can’t assume they will reach that goal just because of what their depth chart looks like on paper. Finally, the Celtics have to live up to their potential.