NBA Fact or Fiction: Are these Celtics worth rooting for?


Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[Last week: Does Nikola Jokić have any challengers in the MVP race?]

This week’s topic: The Boston Celtics are worth rooting for

This campaign has been a strange sensation for Boston Celtics fans. Everything rides on their playoff performance and has since last year, when they fell behind 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, forced a Game 7 against the eighth-seeded Miami Heat and blew a chance to reach a second straight NBA Finals.

Since they built a double-digit lead over the second-place Milwaukee Bucks in the East standings, the biggest rooting interest in them is for good health. Just please get Kristaps Porziņģis to the postseason.

Now it’s here, and the pressure shifts. No team has more to prove this spring than the Celtics.

By any measure, this has been a historic regular season in Boston. The only two rosters in the NBA’s 77-year history to yield a higher net rating than these Celtics (+11.4 points per 100 possessions) are all-timers — Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who finished the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons with a combined record of 171-30, including playoffs, en route to two of their six titles in the 1990s, and the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, who added Kevin Durant to a 73-win squad and coasted to the championship.

Win the title, and you are a G.O.A.T.; lose, and you are a goat. No alternatives.

To the basketball world outside Boston, these Celtics are choke artists. They have made five conference finals in seven years, reached a single Finals and stumbled over themselves on the biggest stage. People enjoy seeing them lose, since the city has won so much — 12 major sports titles since 2001, to be exact.

There is plenty of anxiety to be had in the possibility that they cement that legacy this season, that ownership refuses to foot the bill for a roster that cannot win it all, no matter how good they may be — that doubt overcomes hope, and they are destined to become the ’90s Utah Jazz, a footnote for failure.

But who wants more misery in a world full of it?

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 20:  Jayson Tatum #0 talks to Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at TD Garden on March 20, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

No team faces more pressure in the playoffs than the Celtics. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

The league has never been better, and the Celtics dominated the regular season from start to finish.

It was not easy for Boston fans to take an optimistic view when the Celtics traded Marcus Smart, the heart and soul of this run, even if the return was a 28-year-old one-time All-Star (Porziņģis) and two first-round picks. Smart was worthy of Boston’s fandom — as tough as they come, flaws for all to see, interested solely in the support of those on his side. Us against the world, for all he cared, and the world better be ready for a dogfight.

Acceptance came when Boston acquired Jrue Holiday, a better basketball version of the same player. Holiday and Porziņģis tied together the team on both ends in ways that made Boston more beautiful to watch. The Celtics are a sea of skill and versatility. Everyone shoots, everyone defends, and together they have forged the East’s best outfit on either end of the court. Holiday and Derrick White form the game’s best defensive backcourt. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the league’s best wing duo. And Porziņģis can somehow space the floor or shrink it, depending on what you need a 7-foot-2 Latvian unicorn to do.

Credit Joe Mazzulla for their cohesion. The NBA’s youngest head coach, put in an impossible position, refused to accept criticism for his team’s failures last season, stubborn enough to figure it out on his own. A true New Englander, this Rhode Islander, drew inspiration from “The Town,” for chrissakes.

Maybe his Celtics take too many 3s. It is hard to fault them for it, since they make so damn many. They definitely malfunction down the stretch of close games, the only reason these playoffs should be any fun.

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Forget for a moment all the reasons they might lose. Even if you despise Boston, even if you are a New Yorker, you can appreciate these Celtics. For at their very core, they are homegrown, rising up the NBA’s ranks the old-fashioned way — on the backs of back-to-back lottery picks. Season-ticket holders booed Brown on draft night, and he flipped his relationship with the city from one end of the spectrum to the other, developing into an All-NBA talent and all-world activist. Tatum joined the Celtics as a 19-year-old, and we have watched the prospect become a superstar.

Their growth exceeds enormous expectations. Only, on a storied franchise, success is measured in rings. Tatum and Brown do not join Boston’s pantheon without one, and this is their shot. The emotions of their jersey retirements are all the more poignant if a championship banner awaits Nos. 0 and 7 in the rafters.

For all the talk about how the Celtics cannot win the big one, Brown and Tatum have enjoyed incredible success, appearing in more postseason games than anyone but Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker at their respective ages (26 and 25 years old). If Brown and Tatum played with the equivalent of Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan, two of the game’s greatest players, we would be talking about how many rings they have.

Instead, they have been stewarded by Al Horford, a consummate professional and the first All-Star in his prime to choose the Celtics in free agency, not for who they were but who he could help them be. He led Tatum and Brown to conference finals in their rookie years, left for a larger contract and found pastures in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City were not so green, returning to finish the job. Now, Tatum and Brown can deliver him the title that has eluded his career and possibly make him a Hall of Famer in the process.

This is a storybook script, some “Lord of the Rings” s*** — a master’s students gradually becoming more powerful than even he could have imagined and returning the favor in the form of the ultimate hardware.

Except, it’s been wild to watch media members twist themselves into pretzels trying to squeeze Tatum from the fifth spot on the MVP ballot and All-NBA first team. He is the best player on the best team and arguably the game’s most well-rounded talent, and they wonder if Jalen Brunson is better. (Find one general manager who agrees.)

No one needs to convince you to root for these Celtics. They prefer you do not. All the better when they win. All the worse if they lose. The sweetest joy does not come without risk of more bitter sorrow. Your heart is not in it. Boston’s is, and that is when sport is at its best. Them against the world. Marcus Smart would be proud.

I have jinxed them now, haven’t I? So be it. Long live the 2023-24 Boston Celtics.

Determination: Fiction. This train does not need a bandwagon.



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