Kit Shepard | July 15th, 2018
In the modern NBA, Dynasties always end quicker than expected. The Miami Heat big three only managed a couple of titles. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant‘s dominance with the Los Angeles Lakers ended abruptly. The Garnett-Pierce-Allen trio in Boston yielded just a single ring. Be it due to the physical and mental fatigue of playing into June every year, the difficulty of keeping everyone on a championship team satisfied or the supreme depth of talent across the league today, it seems almost impossible for a team to win several titles in the current NBA climate.
It could be argued that, by winning three titles in four seasons, that the Golden State Warriors have already defied conventional wisdom. However, there were signs last season that a premature ending to the Bay Area dynasty may be just around the corner. As early as February, it appeared the stress of three straight finals was taking its toll, with Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitting that his team was “mentally fried” prior to the All-Star break. Of course, the defending champions did have the necessary mental fortitude to retain their title, but this was not without the closest of shaves in the Western Conference Finals when Golden State needed an injury to Chris Paul to overcome the Rockets in seven games.
So, the question is, how badly do the Warriors want it next season? Motivation was not an issue for their first two titles, as the thirst to win their inaugural championship and then the pain of losing it were enough to drive them towards success in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Yet last season, when the desire to win was perhaps not as great as previous years, Golden State suddenly did not seem invincible. In the coming season, the Warriors main pieces will all have two or three titles each and, with many teams hell-bent on dethroning them, the scenario of them relinquishing their title simply because another team wants it more is very feasible. They could even end up turning to the return of latest addition DeMarcus Cousins, which will likely not be until 2019, for motivation. For all his talent, Boogie will be coming off a serious Achilles injury and does not exactly have the reputation for boosting the morale of the locker room; far from the ideal player to save the dynasty.
If not Golden State then, who will win the Finals? Here’s why the Boston Celtics are the obvious candidate.
Lebron is Gone
Lebron James’ move out west means that the boot is well and truly on the other foot for the Celtics. In previous seasons, teams in the Eastern Conference not named the Cavaliers knew they would have to beat both Lebron and the Warriors to win the title. Now, with the King joining the Lakers out west with Golden State, the challenge is halved. James has dominated the east for what seems like forever, winning the conference title eight times in a row. Now, Boston and all the contenders in the east know they will almost certainly not have to deal with the man they have not been able to overcome for almost a decade. If the Lakers do defy the odds and reach the Finals, the Celtics will avoid a match-up with the Golden State juggernaut. Whatever happens, being in the east is a major advantage.
The second round contest between the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers may have the most significant long-term consequences of any playoff series in recent memory. Boston, missing injured all-stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, was written off by many, as the young duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons had made the Sixers the new team to beat in the east.
What followed was a classic series, where the Celtics won in five games, both inspiring them and haunting the 76ers moving forward. Philadelphia threw away game 2 on the road after leading by 22 points, and Simmons did not make a shot from the field all night. Back on their home floor, two horrendous turnovers involving Simmons and Embiid consigned them to a costly game 3 loss in overtime. To round things off nicely, the 76ers’ season ended after they left a four-point lead slip with little over a minute left in game 5, as their fate was sealed when Embiid could not tie the game from under the rim in the dying seconds.
Looking back, Philadelphia will be wondering just how they lost this series. They could very easily have walked away with a 4-1 victory themselves, but their shortcomings in the clutch let them down drastically. In contrast, the young Celtics team, spearheaded by rookie Jayson Tatum, thrived in the clutch.
With Lebron out west, these two teams look set to do battle for Eastern Conference supremacy for years to come, but this first playoff encounter will not be forgotten. The Celtics gained the confidence that under the brightest of spotlights, they can cope with the pressure of the postseason. Meanwhile, the 76ers, and their two young stars, in particular, will struggle to forget those traumatic defeats as, in the biggest of moments, they failed to deliver and develop that winning habit. It is early in this new Boston-Philadelphia rivalry, but the tone has perhaps already been set.
Plenty has been made of the Warriors’ five all-star caliber players following the Cousins signing, but the Celtics are not too far off Golden State regarding individual talent. Although it remains to be seen whether Irving and Hayward can be the same players after long periods on the treatment table, the pair has the numbers to suggest they can spearhead a Celtics championship run. Irving shot 49% from the field last season, leading all guards averaging over 20 points per game, while Hayward’s 22 ppg season with the Utah Jazz in 2017 indicates that he is more than capable of being a strong second option.
This duo alone would be enough to match anyone in the east, but as last year’s playoffs (which took Boston within a game of the Finals) demonstrated, the Celtics hopes do not rely solely on Irving and Hayward. Tatum’s impressive rookie campaign, in which he became the focal point of Boston’s offense after Irving’s injury, means many see him as a future all-star. Meanwhile, big man Al Horford does not put up huge numbers or show up on many highlight reels but the all-star’s work on the defensive end and knack of getting crucial buckets are invaluable. For those keeping score, the Celtics could have up to four all-stars next season. Their individual talent is by no means equal to the Warriors, but they are closer than commonly perceived.
And overseeing it all in Boston is Brad Stevens, one of the league’s best coaches, if not the best. In his short career in the NBA to date, he has already developed a reputation as a fantastic play-caller out of timeouts and a coach who can augment the ability of his players like no other. If the Warriors’ greatest flaw is possibly their lack of hunger after so much success, then Boston’s culture of maximum effort, as shown by their conference-leading defensive rating (101.8) last season, is an area where they are far ahead of Golden State, and this all starts with the coach.
With an easier path to the Finals, an intangible edge over their main rival in the east and a roster (and coach) better than most, the Boston Celtics undoubtedly have the talent and opportunity to topple a dynasty that is maybe, just maybe, on its last legs.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images