Entering the season, the Eastern Conference of the NBA sure felt like a three-team affair, with Toronto and Boston trying to find a way to chip away at the immovable force that is Cleveland. Well, it took awhile for the Celtics to find their way, but at the halfway point of the season that is exactly where we sit. The Cavs are in charge, but their Monday night massacre at the hands of the Warriors gave other teams hope. Toronto has the most efficient offense in the league, and the Celtics are red hot. It is precisely the race we were hoping for, and it promises to be fun down the stretch.
So, is Boston a legitimate contender in this group? What have they done to turn the corner, and can they keep doing it? And what does it all mean for bettors? Here are six factors to consider when pondering those questions:
Isaiah Thomas: To be a top team you have to get lucky with player acquisitions, and the Celtics got much more than they paid for when they grabbed the tiny Thomas from Phoenix. The guy is playing truly phenomenal basketball this year, averaging better than 28 points per game while adding more than six assists. What deservedly gets the most attention is his fourth quarter play. He shifts into an entirely different gear when the game is on the line, and the results have been special - he leads the entire league in fourth quarter scoring. All you really need to know about how good he has been is the fact that Brad Stevens trusts him absolutely. Stevens is a wizard of the X and O game, and his team's effectiveness improves significantly after a timeout. A few times this year, though, Thomas has waved off his coach when a late timeout would have made sense and has instead gone down to win the game. He is wildly confident right now, and the team is feeding off that. The play is incredible, but as long as he remains healthy it feels at least mostly sustainable. He is a major asset.
Al Horford: Thomas is the face of this team for the most part, but the impact of the big addition of free agent Al Horford can't be overstated. His numbers are solid, and his comfort level is clearly improving. He deserves a lot of credit for the improvement of Thomas from good to great, for one. He's a pick and roll dream for the point guard, and he has an uncanny knack for producing wide-open shots for him and others. He's only going to get better the longer he spends in this system. This was a risky and expensive gamble, but at least for now it is more than paying off.
Trade rumors: This is a team that obviously isn't afraid of making a move midseason to improve, and there are all sorts of theories flying around that they could be in the market again soon. They obviously aren't going to make a deal just to make one, but they are self-aware enough to know that as they sit they would need to get more than a little lucky to contend against the likes of Cleveland or Golden State in a long series. The names that are out there are certainly inspirational - guys like DeMarcus Cousins or Jimmy Butler would be spectacular additions, but they would be costly and would require bold moves. This is definitely something to watch, because Danny Ainge is the ideal combination of fearless and good, and Boston has to feel like they aren't too far from the promised land - or at least not too far from winning the East with some luck.
Coaching: I won't spend too much time here because by now I don't need to. Stevens is one of the very best coaches in this league, and he is improving. He's only going to get better with time, too, which is scary for other teams. If Boston is smart, and they are, they know they have their coach for the long term. He's the best coach in the East right now, and I don't think it's that close. Against Cleveland and Toronto in particular it's barely a fair fight. Those two teams have decent coaches - though I'm less convinced about Cleveland - but they are on different plains.
Betting performance: At 23-16-2 ATS the Celtics are the third-most-profitable betting team in the league behind only Toronto and Houston. They are 11-4-1 ATS in their last 16, so their play has definitely taken a positive turn on this front as well - they are 13-3 straight up over that time. There is some concern that they are only 9-10 ATS at home, but the 14-6-2 ATS road mark is a major situational advantage for bettors. The "over" is 22-19 against the total this year, so they aren't much better than a break-even squad on that front.
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