After 96 Games, The Celtics Can Finally Answer Everyone’s Questions

The Boston Celtics have been the most consistently good franchise in the NBA since 2017. No team has gone as far in the postseason as often as Boston over that period, as they’ve reached the conference finals seven times in eight years and sit four wins away from adding another championship banner to the TD Garden rafters.

Despite all of their recent success, this version of the team has come up short in its quest to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy. Boston has lost five times in the Eastern Conference Finals and, in its one previous trip to the Finals, the team lost in six games to the Warriors after taking a 2-1 series lead. As such, the Celtics have been the victims of their own consistency in terms of how people talk about them. There was nothing they could do in the regular season to answer the questions many skeptics had about them as a team, and with the way the Eastern Conference playoffs shook out — all three teams they faced had stars go down due to injuries — there wasn’t anything they could do in the first three series, either.

Celtics fans have bristled at the way the team and its stars have been covered this year, feeling overlooked and underdiscussed given they had the league’s best record. The real problem for Boston is that no one had any doubts about whether they’d be one of the East’s best teams. That’s been the case for nearly a decade. Every question about this team and every interesting conversation to be had about them from an outside perspective could only really happen once they got to the NBA Finals.

After last year’s stunning ECF loss to the Heat, the Celtics went about reshaping their roster. Kristaps Porzingis was added to give them a different dynamic offensively late in games, while providing much-needed rim protection on the defensive end. Jrue Holiday’s sudden appearance on the trade market offered a perfect opportunity to recoup what was lost on defense in trading Marcus Smart, while adding another facilitator on the offensive end. The results in the regular season were excellent, as evidenced by a 64-win campaign. That’s continued through the first three rounds of the playoffs, as they’ve dropped just two games en route to the Finals despite Porzingis missing the last two rounds due to injury.

However, beating banged up versions of the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Indiana Pacers isn’t the kind of run that changes anyone’s perception of this team. That they had to scratch and claw their way through some of those games, particularly against the Pacers, only adds to the skepticism of some that this Boston team is really all that different.

The way we talk about playoff paths often revolves around beating other stars. Last year’s title run by the Denver Nuggets saw them face two 8-seeds, a 7-seed, and a 4-seed, but they had to beat Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo to get to the mountaintop. Beating those players and doing it in fairly emphatic fashion eliminated any of the chatter about the difficulty of their road to a title.

The Celtics — who, it must be said, have put up a better net rating (10.8) through the first three rounds of the playoffs this year than Denver did through the first three rounds of their run to the title (8.0) in 2023 — haven’t had that same opportunity just yet. The Heat were without Butler, the Cavs were without Donovan Mitchell by the end of that series, and the Pacers had Tyrese Haliburton sidelined for the final two games, while all three teams had other injuries (Terry Rozier, Jarrett Allen, Bennedict Mathurin) to prominent rotation players, as well. The truth is, you play who is in front of you, and Boston deserves credit for not letting those series drag out longer than they needed — even if they played with their food at times in all three series. That said, anyone with questions about this Boston team won’t be sold just yet.

So, here we are at a place where, 96 games into their season, the Celtics have seven games to finally put to rest any skepticism. Boston will have a worthy opponent for the first time all postseason in the NBA Finals as they meet the Dallas Mavericks. Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving provide the star power to create a fascinating matchup with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and the Dallas defense has been the story of the playoffs, with the Mavs becoming a dominant force on that end.

Boston will get the chance they’ve been waiting for all series to quiet the doubts — both internally and externally — about whether they can win a championship with this group. They built the team with this stage in mind, and have tried desperately to prepare themselves. Their series with the Pacers saw them win three tight games, building that confidence in their late-game execution — even if, at times, it felt that Indiana collapsed down the stretch. Tatum has been a willing facilitator, making the right reads when teams send help at him. Brown has been dynamic as a scorer, offering a needed lift as teams have looked to limit Tatum’s looks. Derrick White has been a tremendous third option, giving the team needed floor-spacing around their stars and offering secondary creation when asked. Holiday is in the midst of the best shooting postseason of his career, while also providing the stout defense we’ve come to know from him. Most of this has happened while Porzingis, who has been outstanding this season, has watched from the bench.

Now, the real test arrives in the form of a Mavs team that presents some major challenges for Boston. In the same breath, it’s an opportunity to prove that all the work from last offseason to now has truly created a new Celtics team that isn’t just a flawed contender, but a complete championship squad.

Dallas has thrived in the kinds of late game situations that have caused the Celtics problems in the past, and if they’re to win this series, one would expect it would be because they show this is no longer an issue. On defense, they’ll be tasked with solving the riddle that is Irving and Doncic, who have been sensational this postseason creating for themselves and others. Those two play off each other brilliantly and have kept defenses off kilter with the way they’ve been able to strike a balance between their play styles. Doncic, plodding and methodical, picks apart defenses, while Irving slashes through them.

There is no stopping Dallas’ stars, and even making life difficult isn’t always enough, as they’re two of the best tough shot-makers in the NBA. The real challenge will be staying disciplined and not creating easy buckets for the others by over-reacting to Doncic and Irving making difficult shots. A big that wanders too far out to help will get punished by a lob over his head to Daniel Gafford or Dereck Lively II. A wing that lingers in help for too long will get back cut to death by Derrick Jones Jr. The addition of Porzingis back into the lineup will be vital, as his length and rim protection is a must against this Dallas team, and he will know better than anyone how Doncic looks to pull bigs into no-man’s land to render them useless.

Boston will likely look to test Jones Jr. and PJ Washington as three-point threats, which is probably the best strategy, but if they get hot, will the Celtics be willing to adjust? Or will they risk a similar fate to last year’s Miami series, when they insisted the Heat’s shooters couldn’t keep hitting threes? Joe Mazzulla has always preached patience and a trust in the team’s system and approach, but in a 7-game series, small-sample outliers are enough to swing the result. With one playoff run already under his belt, his ability to recognize when he needs to be adaptable will be critical.

On offense, the Celtics face a Dallas team that has walled off the rim throughout their playoff run. Boston will bomb away from deep, of that we can be assured, but how they create their three-point looks will be determinative in whether they’re successful or not — the Mavs have been pretty good at taking three point attempts away from opponents, too, as they’ve allowed the sixth-fewest per game during the palyoffs. Tatum, Brown, and White must be able to beat the Mavs at the point of attack to get into the paint and kick out to open shooters, rather than settling for swinging the ball around the perimeter into hurried, late-clock shots over contests. Porzingis’ re-entry into the lineup also should help add stress to Dallas’ defense, forcing Gafford and Lively to step outside and make tough choices on helping down low or sticking with Porzingis as a shooting threat. With how well Holiday and White have shot, Jason Kidd would be taking a major risk if he put a big man on one of them with the hopes that they could help in the paint and leave either of those two open.

The advantage Boston has that Dallas’ last two opponents haven’t is their secondary on-ball creation. The Wolves and Thunder were heavily reliant on a single shot-creator in Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, respectively, and the inability of a consistent secondary on-ball threat to emerge was a large part of each team’s downfall. The Celtics should present more issues for the Dallas defense in terms of being able to move the ball and attack the Mavs in rotation. Tatum’s willingness and ability to make the right read quickly against doubles and aggressive shows of help will need to continue, as will the decisiveness of Brown, White, and Holiday to go quickly when the Mavs defense is even slightly out of shape.

The Celtics will have to embrace the physicality of the matchup, as Dallas has thrived on defense under the officiating adjustments that have allowed for more contact in the second half of the season and the playoffs. That was a similar tactic used by the Heat to disrupt Boston’s preference of a beautiful, flowing offense, dragging them into the mud and tempting the Celtics to embrace their worst instincts to try and play in isolation.

For all the discussion about Boston’s easy path to the Finals, a win over this Mavericks team would be an accomplishment worthy of any championship squad. That won’t stop all of the chatter, of course, but it should quiet it from reasonable minds. To hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, they’ll have to overcome many of the challenges that have tripped them up in the past, and the 96 games prior have been preparation for this seven-game final examination that will define their season as a success or failure.