Is Boston unstoppable?

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

Before the NBA season began, polls were taken among sportswriters on their picks to emerge the champion. Sports Illustrated chose Denver to beat Milwaukee in the Finals. Not happening. The defending titlists were bundled out by Minnesota in the second round of the playoffs and Milwaukee fell to Indiana in the first. Lindy’s Sports Pro Basketball predicted a repeat for Denver without naming the other finalist. Sports Illustrated and Lindy’s never thought Nikola Jokic could be stopped. The joke was on the Joker.

But in the New York evening tabloid Newsday, two writers Steve Popper and Evan Barnes went out on a limb to pick Boston over Denver in the Finals. The Nuggets are gone so the Celtics, assuming they get by Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals, must beat either Minnesota or Dallas from the West for Popper and Barnes to claim supremacy in the guessing game.

Are the Celtics ready to go all the way? In the regular season, Boston was untouchable, finishing No. 1 overall with a 64-18 record. East second placer New York was a whopping 14 games behind. Oklahoma City and Denver came closest to Boston’s record but their identical 57-25 marks were still far off. In the playoffs, Boston bowled over Miami and Cleveland, both in five games, holding opponents to an average of 92.25 points in the Celtics’ eight wins. Kristaps Porzingis didn’t even play in the Cleveland series and sat out the Miami clincher with a calf strain. No problem. Veteran Al Horford, 37, has subbed for the 7-2 Porzingis in the middle and the Celtics aren’t missing a beat. Boston is even deadlier when coach Joe Mazzulla plays small and the Celtics’ defensive intensity picks up.

Boston’s 1-2 punch has been a knockout. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are averaging a combined 47.4 points in the playoffs, close to their regular season figure of 49.9. There’s no more consistent duo. Guard Derrick White has raised his playoff three-point norm to .435 and he’s hitting at an 18.2 clip. Horford, Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard are knocking down over 40 percent of their threes so opponents don’t know where to focus defensively with Tatum and Brown aggressive slashers.

Boston has advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in six of the last eight seasons and once to the Finals, losing to Golden State in 2021-22. The Celtics’ last championship came in 2007-08, a 4-2 win over the LA Lakers. They’ve since been to the Finals twice but couldn’t bag the trophy. The consensus is they’re overdue for a title. Last season, Boston exited in the Eastern Conference Finals, bowing to Miami in Game 7 at home and the setback led to a lineup overhaul that jettisoned Marcus Smart and Grant Williams. Porzingis was the key offseason addition and if Boston hopes to make it to the Last Dance, he’s got to be in harness for the stretch run. The immediate priority is to survive Indiana, the NBA’s No. 1 offensive team with seven players averaging in double figure points. The Pacers ranked No. 6 entering the playoffs but they’ve disposed of No. 3 Milwaukee and No. 2 New York. It’ll be a test of Boston’s defense if the Celtics can clamp down on Indiana’s gunners. In yesterday’s Game One, Boston needed an extra five minutes to subdue Indiana and the Celtics lost in Game Two of their previous series against Miami and Cleveland so the Pacers are in line to ride the trend.

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