Marching into the Postseason
Heading out on a back-to-back against two playoff teams following confidence-building wins over below-par opponents, Boston's goal was to maintain its momentum. Udoka and this Celtics team used their identity, and toughness on both ends of the floor to split an extremely daunting back to back. Following a hard-fought loss against Giannis and the Bucks, Boston finds itself in a position to secure the three seed in the Eastern Conference. There are plenty of wild scenarios with less than a week left in the season, but the loss on Thursday moves the Celtics farther away from a first-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets.
If Boston drops its final game in Memphis, and the 76ers win their last two contests against the Pacers, and Pistons, the Celtics will be in the 4/5 matchup. Anything can happen from here on out when it comes to seeding, but to the Celtics, it should not matter where they land. Avoiding a potential seven-game series with Durant and the Nets may be beneficial, but the identity this squad has built during the second half of the season bodes them well for a deep playoff run in 2022. Without three starters on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back against a fully healthy Bucks team, the short-handed Celtics gave all the defending champions could handle.
Boston had six different players score in double figures to go along with 21 made threes and another outing with 30 or more assists. Udoka has developed this group into a real team with a culture that does not die when some of the stars are out for a game or two. Just like in Toronto last week, the Celtics battled a team headed to the playoffs to the end without some of their key pieces.
After a 19 point performance against the Bucks, Derrick White stated, "We’re all aware of what’s going on. I don’t think anybody can not be aware...But I think everybody’s just so close that you don’t really know. One game could change from – we were at first at one point, then next thing you know we were in fourth. So each game’s important. We’ve just gotta stick to keep hooping each game and we’ve got a big one here in Memphis. And wherever we’re at, we’re at."
Having these games when a few of Boston's most important players are on the bench creates more opportunities for others. When Tatum and Horford do get back on the floor in the postseason, players like Theis, and Smart will have more confidence to be aggressive when given the chance. The German big man was on a different planet on Thursday night in Milwaukee.; three points off of his career-high of 25 as he was dominant and assertive against a healthy and physical Bucks frontcourt. When Williams III does make a full recovery, Udoka will have a red-hot Theis waiting in the wings on the bench. White and Theis were no question the two pieces that Boston was missing to complete its seemingly never-ending puzzle. Neither of them demands the ball like Dennis Schröder, but when Boston needs it the most, both of them have the ability to make a big play and in White's case, create his own shot.
The majority of the NBA world would say that Boston's loss to the Bucks on the road was the best case scenario in regards to playoff matchups. If Boston were to win in Milwaukee on Thursday night, it would have essentially locked them into the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a likely first-round matchup against the Nets or the Hawks. If the Bucks win out, and Boston beats Memphis on Sunday, the Celtics will face the struggling Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Boston owns the tie-breaker against the 76ers, so if Philadelphia were to finish third in the East, it would have to win out, and the Celtics would have to lose at FedEx Forum in their final game of the regular season.
Out of all the teams in the top-eight in the Eastern Conference, Chicago is without question the team playing the worst basketball at this moment in time. DeRozan is the engine that makes this Chicago team run, and even when he goes off, the world has seen the Bulls struggle to grind out results. If it is Boston against Chicago in the first round, Udoka should be well equipped to take the series and go from there with the hope that Williams III returns in the second round.
A relatively favorable first-round matchup helps the Celtics even more as they are playing some of the best basketball at the perfect time. Back-to-back defeats last week started the questions about whether or not Boston could continue the identity it created without Robert Williams III. In the past week and a half, the NBA has learned a lot about the Celtics and how much this team has grown since the beginning of the year. Marcus Smart continues to grow his Defensive Player of the Year case each time he is on the floor and Udoka's culture has created the Boston Celtics into a title contender.
The Celtics were a .500 team last year, but Boston has completely flipped the script and will finish with 50 or more wins for the first time since the 2017-2018 season when it made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. The supporting cast of Boston has the talent to pick up when its stars are out, and that has not been the case for quite some time in Beantown. Searching for the players to play with Tatum and Brown has gone through a lot of different phases. If the Celtics do not win the title this season, what Boston did do to close out the year and the individuals it has onboard right now gives the entire franchise hope for the foreseeable future.