When LeBron James left for Los Angeles and vacated the crown he’d worn as supreme ruler of the Eastern Conference the past eight years, many presumed it would be the Celtics ascending to the throne. They were cast as favorites — prohibit favorites in some places.
The online sportsbook Bovada in mid-September set the money line for Boston to reach the finals at -130. (As in, you’d need to wager $130 to win $100.) Next closest was the 76ers at +375 — as in, a $100 bet wins $375 — and the only other team within +2000 was the Raptors (+400).
The Celtics reached the midpoint of their season in Miami on Thursday night, and the ups and downs of those 41 games has changed the bettors’ view — but maybe not as dramatically as one, including Charles Barkley, might expect. On Friday evening, Bovada showed the Celtics’ money line to win the East at +235, behind only the Raptors (+180). The Sixers (+410) are in roughly the same spot, while the Bucks (+410) and Pacers (+1600) have played their way out of the morass with no real shot.
It’s evident the East is those five teams, then everybody else. The Celtics are clearly in that upper class, but how do they really rate among that tier? Are they the team that caps off a perfect homestand by pummeling the Pacers from start to finish? Or are they the team that goes to Miami the next night and never really gives itself a chance?
Talent-wise, the answer should be — and is, on some nights — obvious. But the box score from a dud like Thursday resurfaces questions about this collection of players, and whether it’s missing the element that would bring more consistent cohesion.
The answer will take shape the next 41 games and truly come in the subsequent playoff series. (It’ll be a disaster if that last word’s not pluralized.) But the halfway point provides a convenient time to measure the C’s against their primary competition and take stock of where things stand in the East:
After winning 8-of-10, the Bucks awoke Friday an East-best 29-11 (.725). They’ve split two meetings with the Celtics, and if fans don’t yet fear or respect Milwaukee’s legitimacy as threats in the East, the numbers say they should. Through Thursday, the Bucks led the NBA in points per game at 117.5 — yes, more than even the Warriors — and paired that with the league’s second-best defensive rating (per Basketball Reference). Naturally, then, they owned the Association’s best scoring margin, outscoring opponents by close to 10 points per game.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has rightfully emerged as a hot MVP candidate amid his team’s climb, but Mike Budenholzer’s team is more than just the Greek Freak. Much is made of the Celtics’ depth, but the Bucks have four guys averaging at least 15 points a night, and fifth starter Brook Lopez is adding 12.2 of his own. They shoot the 3-point shot well, they lead the league in 2-point field goal percentage, and at the other end they’ve limited opponents to a league-low 43.1 percent shooting from the field and cleaned the defensive glass better than anyone league-wide.
It’s time to start taking the Bucks seriously, regardless of whatever confidence Celtics fans carry forward from last year’s seven-game conference quarterfinal series. Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe are a formidable supporting cast, as each proved at different stages of that series. They’re 19-4 at home, but 24 of their final 42 games are on the road. Beating the Rockets at Houston this week was a legitimizing statement, but it remains to be seen if Milwaukee’s early excellence is sustainable.
The preseason picks in the East might’ve looked different had the pundits a better sense of which version of Kawhi Leonard was going to Canada, or that after essentially taking a year off he would basically resume his prime as though nothing had happened. The ex-Spur entered Friday averaging 27 points and eight rebounds, and ranked fourth in player efficiency rating (PER), sandwiched between James Harden and LeBron James.
Buoyed by his arrival, the Raptors opened the season 12-1 and 20-4. While that means they’re just 11-8 since Dec. 3, starting guard Kyle Lowry missed 11 of those games injured and Leonard still isn’t playing back-to-back nights as he returns from the leg issue that precipitated his exit from San Antonio. In other words, a case could be made that the Raptors established themselves as front-runners for the conference title not even at full strength.
Toronto comes to TD Garden on Wednesday, looking to avenge their November overtime loss here. Even if the Celtics defend their home court again, it figures to be difficult to make the case they’re ahead of Toronto. The C’s may be the more talented team from top to bottom, but with glue guys like Danny Green and Serge Ibaka, 2016 first-round pick Pascal Siakam chipping in 15 points a game, plus another 10.5 points a night from 24-year-old Fred VanFleet, the Raptors have a well-constructed roster that functions effectively together.
Until Toronto turns its fortunes in the spring, some doubt must remain, but to this point the oddsmakers don’t look wrong.
The rest of the conference elite is centered MVP-caliber talents — Antetokounmpo, Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid. The Pacers are the team that doesn’t exactly seem to fit, yet they took a 27-14 record into Madison Square Garden on Friday night, standing third in the East. And that’s with their MVP Victor Oladipo playing just 30 of the first 41 contests.
The Pacers have a bunch of nice pieces. Oladipo is one, as is the other big ticket in the Paul George trade of two summers ago, Damontas Sabonis; he’s averaging 15 points in just 25 minutes a night. Thaddeus Young is a solid veteran. Bojan Bogdanovic is having a career year at 29, and 22-year-old Myles Turner fills the box score with 13 points, seven boards, and three blocks in a typical contest. Tying it together are veteran guards Darren Collison and Tyreke Evans, and at the other end, Indiana is the second-toughest to score against in the NBA. It’s a good team, with a good coach in Nate McMillan.
It’s just not a team that projects as much of a postseason threat. Much like the Brad Stevens-Isaiah Thomas Celtics of yesteryear, there are players, but Indiana doesn’t appear to have quite enough when high-end talent wins the spring day.
To that point, look at their record and remaining schedule in closer detail. They’re 3-5 against the other top-five teams in the East, and that includes a win in which Boston basically gave the game away in the final seconds. (The C’s followed that up earlier this week by hanging 135 on Indy in a blowout.) They’re 1-5 against West teams in playoff position as of Thursday’s action — and they’ve yet to face Denver, Golden State, Oklahoma City or the Clippers, meaning two each against four of the West’s five best teams await the rest of the way.
The Celtics might have a tough time catching Toronto and, maybe, Milwaukee. They should not finish behind Indiana.
The Sixers may be the most comparable team to the Celtics, given the wealth of talent on both rosters and the accompanying questions about how well it fits together. While Jimmy Butler certainly adds to the skill level and dangerousness at both ends of the floor, reports suggest he has openly doubted the system put in place by coach Brett Brown. The quirks of fellow stars Embiid and Ben Simmons already made for an interesting collection to manage.
Through it all, the Sixers entered Friday at 27-15. They won 4-of-5 to start the new year, and individually, the talent has been as advertised. Embiid was averaging 26.9 points and 13.5 rebounds. Simmons is flirting with season-long triple-double-type stats. Butler is averaging 18.3 points for Philadelphia this season, as is J.J. Redick in his relished role as the beneficiary of floor space created by the others. The Wells Fargo Center has become an extremely difficult place to win for opponents, with Philly 18-3 on its home court as the Hawks rolled in Friday night.
However, the Sixers were 9-12 on the road, joining the Celtics (10-11) as the only East elites with a losing record away from home. Further, after Embiid, Simmons, Butler and Redick, the biggest contributor on the active roster is either T.J. McConnell or Landry Shamet, neither of whom plays more than 21 minutes a night. If the chemistry among the stars continues to deteriorate, the Sixers don’t appear to have anything to fall back on, and a defense allowing 112.5 points per game (22nd of 30 teams) doesn’t leave much room for the stars to falter. As is, the Sixers are only outscoring teams by about a bucket a night.
Boston has had success against Philadelphia the past year, and even the addition of Butler shouldn’t change how they feel they compare.
So, about the Celtics …
Thursday’s loss at Miami was jarring, and not because it happened, as the Heat are a capable team and the Celtics were on the second half of a back-to-back. After a home stand where everything looked balanced, Boston got 2 points from Jaylen Brown, 4 from Terry Rozier and 6 from Gordon Hayward. Away from TD Garden, the team looked different.
The Celtics are on the road the next two games, but starting with the Raptors game on Wednesday, they’ll play 11 of their final 15 tilts before the All-Star break in Boston. There are some challenges in there, with the Warriors, Thunder and LeBron’s Lakers all coming to town, but it should represent a chance to make a move.
They might need it, too, because after the break is a three-game road trip that includes trips to both Milwaukee and Toronto. The two teams the Celtics might well find themselves chasing for the entire second half.