Marcus Smart Says Celtics ‘Really, Really, Really’ Are NBA Contenders

Marcus Smart, Celtics

Getty Marcus Smart, Celtics

Since the Celtics last saw the Lakers, fortunes have changed considerably for Boston. That game came on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the result was decidedly Celtics-friendly: a 139-107 drubbing that ended a three-game losing streak and six losses in a span of eight games. That had been easily the worst stretch of the year for the Celtics, with losses to sub-.500 teams like Washington, San Antonio, Detroit and Phoenix, three of which came at home.

The game against the Lakers snapped the Celtics out of their funk and the team has played so well since that there’s been a new wave of buzz about Boston as a low-key championship contender. But if the Celtics really deserve the reputation as a potential Finals team—especially with Milwaukee buzz-sawing its way through the East—it may be necessary to back up their earlier win over the Lakers with a win in the Staples Center on Sunday, even without ALl-Star Kemba Walker.

First, a look at how things have shaped up for the Celtics going back to that Lakers game. Note that the Celtics were a very good team before then, but since, they’ve been an elite team:

From Jan. 20 on (NBA rank) Before Jan. 20  (NBA rank)
Record 12-2 (2nd) 27-14 (8th)
Off. Efficiency 115.7 (3rd) 111.5 (6th)
Def. Efficiency 106.4 (2nd) 105.6 (5th)
Net Rating 9.4 (2nd) 6.0 (5th)
Effective FG% 55.3 (6th) 52.4 (18th)
Opp. Effective FG% 49.1 (2nd) 51.4 (10th)

Marcus Smart: ‘We’ve Got What a Lot of Teams Don’t Have’

The Celtics have one of the most cohesive five-man units in the league—Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis—a group that has been playing together for four seasons. While a handful of teams can be counted as potential contenders, like the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and Sixers, roster upheaval has been a key part of each of those teams.

The Bucks and the hard-charging Raptors (the lone team with a better record in the past month than the Celtics) are the only teams with long-term roster cohesion comparable to Boston.

For Smart, that is an underrated feature of this team. Gone are Kyrie Irving and Al Horford but much better chemistry has been left in their place. The Celtics have had to work in one major piece, free-agent Kemba Walker, and that remains a work in progress.

“We’ve got what a lot of teams don’t have,” Smart told this week. “We have five core players who have been playing two or more years together in a system that they’re familiar with. They’re all unique and versatile in their position where they can play multiple positions, and you don’t find that very often on a team where you can find five, three, four guys that can play multiple positions, that can bring the ball up, that can score, that can play defense and really contribute to a team like we have here.”

The Celtics have had marginal contenders in the Brad Stevens era—they reached the Eastern Conference finals twice in that span, in 2017 led by Isaiah Thomas and in 2018 led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown—but Smart said this group has the potential to be different.

“I’ve had some where we thought, ‘Maybe we can go,’” Smart said. “That run that we had with Isaiah Thomas, we thought we were a pretty good team, even the two years ago team where we made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but this year is just a different feeling. We really got that sense of ‘We really, really, really, really have a chance this year,’ and it’s very evident to us. I think it’s starting to be evident to people around the league, and it’s evident to fans around the league.”

Sweeping Lakers Historically Bodes Well for Celtics

A series sweep of the Lakers would go a long way toward firming up the Celtics’ status as potential contenders. According to current odds, the Celtics are No. 5 on the list of favorites to win the championship, behind the Lakers, Bucks, Clippers and Rockets. They’re the second-favorite after the Bucks to win the East.

According to Celtics radio play-by-play man Sean Grande, a sweep of the Lakers usually bodes well for Boston’s playoff future. Going back to 1976, it has happened seven times—four times resulted in an NBA championship.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, of course. But things are pointed up for the Celtics these days.

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