The Boston Celtics are the best team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
This seems like a pretty bold statement, but on paper, it no longer can be disputed. The Celtics woke up Tuesday with the best record in the East (48-26), overtaking a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has held that distinction since November 2015.
That’s a significant achievement for Boston, which is just three seasons removed from a 25-57 tankfest and two seasons removed from being blown out by the same Cavs in the first round of the playoffs. The C’s undeniably are heading in the right direction, and reaching the No. 1 seed is another notch in their belt.
But are the Celtics the best team in the East?
If you’ve followed the NBA over the last few years, you know where we’re going with this. LeBron James has appeared in the last six NBA Finals, and only twice in that span was his team the No. 1 seed. In 2015, Cleveland finished as the No. 2 seed, only to sweep the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference finals. The Cavs haven’t been afraid to sacrifice regular-season wins for postseason health, and their playoff success proves they can’t be solely defined by their record.
Admittedly, LeBron and Co. are putting that theory to the test this season. Cleveland has suffered some ugly losses recently, the latest a 103-74 pummeling at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs despite playing at full strength. The Cavs are 7-10 in their last 17 games, and their last four losses have been by an average of 21 points.
Yet Cleveland seems to feed off this regular-season adversity — almost welcome it, even. Lest we forget, this is a team that fired coach David Blatt midway through last season, only to go win a championship under Tyronn Lue. The Celtics, meanwhile, have had an opposite experience: 48 wins last campaign earned them a first-round playoff exit.
To be clear: Boston’s season to date has been no fluke. Considering Isaiah Thomas’ otherworldly play and an improved supporting cast bolstered by Al Horford, it’s no surprise the Celtics already have reached 48 wins with eight games remaining on their schedule. There’s a very good chance the C’s will finish the regular season as the East’s No. 1 seed — FiveThirtyEight puts Boston’s odds at 67 percent — and they’ll be heavily favored in the postseason’s first round.
But after that, you might as well throw Boston’s No. 1 seed out the window. The Washington Wizards would pose a legitimate threat in a potential second-round matchup, and anyone who believes the Celtics would be favored in an Eastern Conference finals matchup with a fully healthy Cleveland squad hasn’t watched the Cavs in the playoffs during the last two years.
The C’s still are relatively inexperienced by postseason standards, and their inability to close out teams down the stretch — they’ve been outscored in the fourth quarter in six consecutive games — is cause for concern. Yes, the Celtics are the conference’s best team on paper (on Tuesday, at least), but until further notice, the East still runs through Cleveland.
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