The Boston Celtics Biggest Challenge Will Be Themselves

The Boston Celtics spent Sunday afternoon bludgeoning the Golden State Warriors, turning what ABC hoped would be an exciting national TV showcase game into a Summer League exhibition by the third quarter. Both teams emptied the benches early in the second half, as the Celtics led 82-38 at halftime and ultimately cruised to a 140-88 win, providing yet another result to point to their dominance this season.

While there’s a tight race at the top of the West standings between two young, up-and-coming contenders in Minnesota and Oklahoma City, the defending champs in Denver, and a team finally hoping to fulfill its promise in the Clippers, there is no such race at the top of the East. Boston has an 8-game lead on the Milwaukee Bucks for the top seed in the conference, and should have the 1-seed locked up in a couple of weeks.

There aren’t many teams that are good enough to say anything less than a championship is a failure. The Celtics are, unquestionably, on that list. Those are the stakes for a team that’s made the Eastern Conference Finals its perennial home, but have only gotten to the Finals one time in five attempts. That consistency in being on the verge of a title but never reaching the summit also makes Boston far more interesting going into the postseason than most teams with their kind of regular season resume.

The West figures to be decided by teams that are either so new to this that they don’t have a ton of playoff scar tissue, or teams that have a championship pedigree. That should create some incredible matchups and tremendous storylines as new contenders look to take down past champions, but in the East, the dominant storyline will be the Celtics battling themselves.

Teams like the Warriors and Heat laid the blueprint for dealing with the Boston teams of the past, finding ways to frustrate and bait them into taking bad shots, settling for hero ball rather than playing with the flow that got them there. They spent this offseason trying to address those issues. Gone is Marcus Smart, the longtime emotional and vocal leader of the team, supplanted by Derrick White and Jrue Holiday in the point guard role. Smart was moved to bring in Kristaps Porzingis, the hopeful answer to the late-game offensive stagnation of the past. The results, to this point, have been emphatic. The Celtics have the best offense in the NBA. They have the second-best defense in the NBA. They have not lost back-to-back games at any point this season.

However, while it’s certainly not fair to completely wave away this level of regular season excellence, the truth is Boston has to make sure all of this translates to the postseason, and that’s what makes the next couple months such a delicate dance. They will likely have the 1-seed in the East sewn up with two or more weeks left in the regular season, meaning they will play more “meaningless” basketball than anyone. That requires them to toe the line between rest and rust, finding the happy medium between getting as healthy as possible for the postseason while maintaining the form that’s gotten them this far.

Once there, for all the talented teams in the East, Boston appears to be in a class of their own and will be the heavy favorites to make the Finals. There are good teams in the East — Milwaukee is starting to figure things out under Doc Rivers, Philly should have Joel Embiid back, Miami has proven that seeding matters very little to them once they reach the playoffs. But even though all three of those teams could make up the road to the Finals, the Celtics’ biggest test will be internal.

We often talk about playoff experience and how important it is in the process of building a champion, but for every example of a title team molded by prior postseason failures, there’s even more that could never rid themselves of that scar tissue to get over the hump. Boston looks like a team built to do just that, but as Chris Berman always says, that’s why they play the games. The Celtics will inevitably find themselves in positions they’ve faced before, but the double-edged sword of experience is that there are things they’ve seen but not been able to overcome. They are battle-tested but equally battle-scarred, and moving beyond that will require them to find something deep within themselves to not let the past haunt their promising present.

This season has been about preparing themselves for those moments. Joe Mazzulla was practically glowing after the Celtics beat the Sixers while shooting 5-for-22 from three, thrilled to have a game he can point to where his team still dominated despite shots not falling. Porzingis provides a level of floor balance they’ve lacked, blending the rim protection they need on the defensive end with a dynamism on offense that no team really has an answer to when he’s playing well (you have, assuredly, consumed some piece of NBA content over the last few weeks that deemed him the most important Celtic). Holiday and White have kept their point of attack defense elite while raising their offensive profile from the guard position. As a whole, the roster has given Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum everything they could need in a supporting cast. As Tatum explained to me at All-Star Weekend, they don’t present opposing defenses any real weak points to attack.

“It’s tough. I mean, I feel like guarding us, you got to give up something. You can’t stop everything,” Tatum said. “And I think that’s what we were trying to build. Get the right guys in place in our system that you might have to give up something and you have to give it up to a really good player.”

And yet, despite 60 games of proving it in the regular season, everyone is just waiting to see if they can do it in the biggest moments in late May and early June — which, it must be said, is partly due to them steamrolling the East and making it so people can turn their attention to the playoffs. For the ascendent teams in the West, namely the Thunder and Timberwolves, there will be plenty of discussion about how they’re hurt by the lack of playoff experience, but there’s also a freedom that comes from that which, when harnessed, can be a propellant.

On the flip side, the Celtics have seen firsthand how thin the margins are once you reach the NBA’s final four, and they will have to dig deep to find that same freedom and play without the fear that can come when you’re trying to outrun ghosts of the past. Their effort to do so will be fascinating to watch unfold, but if they succeed, it’ll make that first time hoisting the Larry O’Brien even sweeter.