The Boston Celtics can't be called a real surprise this year, but they have unquestionably taken another big step forward after last year. They have won 10 of their last 12 games, and that has taken them from just over .500 to the top half of the Eastern Conference. Last year they were just lucky to make the playoffs and they knew it. This year they will likely be favored in their opening playoff series, and they have to be considered as one of the few teams that can be considered even a potential threat to the presumed winners of the East, the Cavaliers.
So, how are the Celtics doing it? Can they keep doing it? And what does it mean for bettors? Here are seven factors to consider when pondering those questions:
Stevens is outstanding: Above all other things, the biggest thing this team has going for it is Brad Stevens. It was obvious in college just how good he was - Butler didn't get to the National Championship Game two years in a row due to blue-chip talent. Guys like Calipari and Pitino have dominated in college and floundered in the pros, though, and Stevens was still in his 30s, looked about half that, and his only pro experience before taking the Celtics gig was attending games as a fan. He has made the transition seamlessly, though, and is right up with the very best in terms of game management. His guys would die for him right now, and they trust that he will make the right move. Coaching is a much bigger aspect of this league than it sometimes gets credit for, and the Celtics are in very good shape on that front. Stevens is a major asset, and he's only getting started.
You can feel the love: When you watch teams that succeed you can often see just how much they love playing together. Every day is a joy for the Warriors right now. That love of playing together brought the Royals a World Series last year. It's not necessary for success, but when it happens it's special. This team is like that. A couple of games back they won in Cleveland at the buzzer to cap a crazy game, You could see their unadulterated joy. They were happy because they won but happier because they had won together. It sounds cheesy, but it is very legitimate - and a big reason to get behind this team. I'm not saying that it will take them all the way or anything - there is almost no chance of that - but it makes them better than they would be if they were just a collection of equally talented players punching the timeclock every day. That makes them fearless.
Ready and willing to deal: The Celtics have more than their share of draft picks available in coming years. They have a fat expiring contract for David Lee to play with and other contracts like Amir Johnson and other smaller contracts that could be attractive to other teams. In short, they have lots to deal with. There are teams looking to deal, too. The Hawks are talking about starting over, and several other teams are looking to open up space for a run at Kevin Durant this offseason. Boston could be in position to improve themselves significantly heading into the trade deadline, and they have traditionally been a fearless squad willing to make a move. This could be fun to watch, and they really have the ability to get better. .
Performance against the West: It has all been positive until now, but this is less so. The Celtics are just 8-7 against the Western Conference, which is the worst record of the legitimate teams in the East. That isn't ideal.
Cavs: To win the East you probably have to go through Cleveland. Boston won't be intimidated after giving them all they could handle last year in the playoffs. They have had some success this year, too - going 1-1 so far, with that win coming in Cleveland. Cleveland would be the clear favorite at this point, but you can't completely rule the Celtics out. The Raptors also loom large in the East right now, and the Celtics have not fared as well against them, losing both contests so far.
Conference sets up well for them: They certainly haven't locked anything up yet, but the Celtics are well positioned for home-court advantage to start the playoffs. They are in third place now. And with Atlanta, their closest chaser, looking to blow things up, and fifth-place Miami, Indiana in sixth, and the Bulls in seventh all lacking consistency, the Celtics can stay in the upper half of the conference with a solid effort down the stretch. There isn't a truly easy series in the East this year unlike past years, but Boston with the home-court advantage could be dangerous.
ATS performance: At 31-23-1 ATS the team is solidly profitable on the season. Only three teams - San Antonio, Golden State and Denver - have produced more profit on the season than Boston. They wound up second in the league last year at 49-32-1 ATS last year, so being reliably profitable is nothing new for them.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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