We've seen many claims for the East's best team this season.
The Bucks are last year's champions, and have won over 80% of their games when their Big Three (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton) is available this year.
The Nets, Bulls and Heat have all had runs as the East's top seed despite myriad injuries — and in the case of the Nets, vaccine — absences. Even now, Miami and Chicago have the same record (37-21), with the Heat holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.
We can't forget the Cavaliers, an upstart bunch that had the East's best net rating through December 31. The Sixers have the best win percentage (72%) in the East since Christmas; related, Joel Embiid is averaging a league-leading 33.1 points (63.1 True Shooting percentage), 11.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists during that stretch.
For those counting, that's six teams that have or had "we're-playing-better-than-anyone-in-the-conference" arguments this season. Since the turn of the calendar, the Boston Celtics have submitted a strong case to be the seventh.
The Celtics have a conference-best 17-6 record in 2022. Their plus-13.2 net rating doesn't just top the conference — it's nearly three points better than the Phoenix Suns for the league's top mark.
Their defense, both overall (100.4 defensive rating) and filtered for half-court situations (85.9), is roughly four points better than anyone else's this year. The offense, once maligned for its lack of movement and underwhelming shot profile, is hovering around the top 10 in 2022.
There are caveats to throw out if you want to discount some of their statistical dominance. Chief among them are the key absences some of their opponents have faced. And trust me, the irony of dropping this piece after they mollywhopped the Sixers by 48 without their new addition, James Harden, isn't lost on me.
To that I counter:
- You can only play who's in front of you.
- Surely we're not pretending this Celtics group has been a beacon of health.
- Even if you concede that they've gotten some injury luck, particularly in early/mid January, there are still structural things to be excited about with this team.
This is why the East should be on notice.
THE JAYS ARE ROLLING
Kinda has to start here, right?
A large part of the offensive clunkiness has boiled down to these two. Jayson Tatum went the first couple months of the season missing more jumpers than an abandoned trampoline park. Jaylen Brown staked his claim as the best Celtic early on, but tunnel vision still happened to hit him at inopportune times.
It was an odd problem; both players were good enough to be the focal point of defensive game plans, and both struggled to lift the guys around them — including each other. The flashbulb moment came when Marcus Smart (more on him later) essentially called them out for not being willing ball-movers.
"Every team knows we're trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen," Smart said after the 128-114 loss to the Bulls. "Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody's scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don't want to pass the ball."
He did express optimism toward the end, capping his thoughts with this:
"That's something that they're going to learn," Smart said. "They're still learning. We're proud of the progress they're making, but they're going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team to open up the court for them later down in the game. It's something we've been asking them to do, and they're learning. We just gotta continue to help those guys do that to help our team."
But the message was clear: we're not going to hit our level unless we can work together.
To that point, there's been a commitment to unselfishness by The Jays and a better environment being fostered by those around them. As my co-host Steve Jones Jr. has pointed out on The Dunker Spot, the Celtics are doing a better job of leveraging their talents together to grease the wheels of the offense.
Sets like this have become more frequent.
Smart sets a ram screen for Al Horford, who then ghosts a screen for Tatum. With Julius Randle in a drop, that's a shot (or a pump-and-drive) for Horford if he wants it. Instead, the Celtics flow into an empty corner handoff with Brown to put further strain on the defense. RJ Barrett provides help at the nail, so Brown kicks it to Tatum. With Barrett off-balance on the recovery, Tatum is able to drive by and get a layup.
Another fave of mine: a Double Drag look with Brown or Tatum as the popper. Depending on the coverage, it either allows them to dictate a switch, or open up something with the roll man (Robert Williams III, Horford) since helping off of Tatum or Brown is typically a bad idea.
Individually, we've seen passing growth from the Jays. Tatum is starting to thread the needle between being patient and decisive. He's slowing up enough to engage the big more in pick-and-roll, but firing darts outside if extra help appears. He's leading the Celtics in three-point assists (54) by a wide margin in 2022.
For Brown, he's leveraging his scoring gravity to create open looks. He's more comfortable making interior reads right now — 51 two-point assists (34 at the rim), 35 three-point assists in 2022 — but that's okay. That his comfort and willingness (5.5 potential assists through Dec.31, 7.2 in 2022) are growing is all that matters.
THE GAP FILLERS
It would be one thing if Smart simply called for more ball movement earlier in the year. The (valid) criticism has aged well because he's taken more of that responsibility into his own hands.
He's done it in the traditional sense, using ball screens early in the clock to get downhill and get the defense scrambling. Smart has long been an underrated passer, so shifting him from off-ball spacer to tip of the spear has been productive.