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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Yes, Celtics had the easiest path to the NBA Finals, but how much does it matter?

Miami Heat guard Delon Wright (4) drives the ball as Boston Celtics guard Jrue Holiday (4) defends in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series at Kaseya Center on April 29 in Miami.  (Tribune News Service)
By Tony Jones The Athletic

To reach the NBA Finals, which start Thursday night against the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden, the Boston Celtics missed almost every single major star the Eastern Conference had to offer, either in part or in full.

The Celtics were able to avoid the Milwaukee Bucks and superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. They avoided the Philadelphia 76ers and superstar Joel Embiid. Same for the New York Knicks and Jalen Brunson.

By seeding and by games missed to injury for opponents, Boston just enjoyed the easiest road to an NBA Finals appearance in the last 25 years, according to a statistical analysis performed by The Athletic. In needing 14 games to get through the Eastern Conference, Boston opponents missed an All-Star in nine of them. On paper, the best team they have faced to this point is a Cleveland Cavaliers team missing Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen for most of the five-game semifinals series.

This matters because it puts an onus on the Celtics to validate how good they have been this year. If nothing else for Boston, this season has been NBA title or bust. And, like it or not, history won’t remember this Boston team by its gaudy regular-season win total or postseason blowouts. Ultimately, history will remember Boston by what it does against a Dallas team that’s been a juggernaut since a February trade deadline, thanks to bringing PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford into the fold.

Should the Celtics defeat Dallas, history will remember them kindly decades from now. This is a team that won 64 games this season. The Celtics had the top offense in the league this year. They were one of the NBA’s top five defenses, as well. They were dominant in the regular season and have been dominant in the playoffs, despite how statistically easy their road for the latter has been.

An NBA title would only confirm what the numbers have said for the past eight months: Boston has been the best team in the league from the word, “Go.” But that’s where the tricky part of this comes in. Even with Boston sweeping the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals and beating the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers in five games each, the eye-test hasn’t always matched the analysis. Despite two gentlemen’s sweeps and a real sweep, Boston has had its share of moments where it has looked vulnerable – almost bored. And the fact is, the Mavericks are far superior, deeper, more talented and just flat-out better than any other team the Celtics have faced this postseason.

For the first time in these playoffs, the Celtics won’t have the best player in a series. That honor goes to All-NBA Dallas guard Luka Dončić. And for the first time this postseason, the Celtics will face a healthy basketball team. When they went to the 2022 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Boston was arguably the better team with the better and deeper roster, but the Celtics came up short because eventual Finals MVP Stephen Curry took over the series. There wouldn’t be nearly as much grace given to Boston if the Celtics don’t get it done this time around. Remember: The Celtics were historically dominant this season. They have a terrific roster on paper, and this roster has more collective experience at this level of basketball than Dallas’ does.

To be clear, having an easy road to the Finals isn’t a knock on Boston. You play who’s in front of you. The Celtics have been the best team in the league all season. They have one of the NBA’s best starting lineups when Kristaps Porziņģis is healthy. Jayson Tatum has been terrific and rightfully notched another First Team All-NBA selection, and Jaylen Brown has been playing some of the best basketball of his NBA career.

The study by The Athletic’s James Jackson shows multiple dominant teams over the past 25 years have faced similar roads, but we don’t question most of their paths because … they were undeniably dominant and finished the job of winning an NBA championship.

The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers and the 2017 Golden State Warriors are examples of this. Neither faced a gauntlet on their respective roads to a championship. But what we remember from that Lakers team is how good Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were. What we remember from that Warriors team is that they were pretty much one of the three best teams in NBA history. Their roads were easy in large part because they made them easy. They were levels above the rest of the league in those seasons. This was known on paper, and those teams showed it on the floor with a level of talent matched with killer instinct that ultimately made them unbeatable.

Boston’s challenge, in this sense, is to win a championship, which would erase any lingering doubt as to how good it has been this season. It can be argued that we don’t know at this point, from a playoff sense, just how good the Celtics are. Their five-game first-round series win over the Heat? Jimmy Butler didn’t play a single second of that series. Boston beat Cleveland in the second round came without, for the most part, having to face Mitchell and Allen. The Celtics’ last two wins over the Pacers came without having to face All-NBA guard Tyrese Haliburton.

In terms of All-Star opponent absences, the 2024 Celtics enter the Finals with the second-most of any Finals team since 1999 (nine). Over that span, only four other teams (2017 Warriors, 2001 Lakers, 2017 Cavaliers, 2016 Cavaliers) entered the Finals with a higher point differential than this season’s Celtics. Moreover, Boston’s pre-Finals opponents had more All-Star absences than those other four teams combined (eight).

Had Boston’s opponents teams been healthy, would the Celtics be playing on Thursday night in Game 1? Probably. But no matter whether one agrees, there is perceived pressure for the Celtics to finish the job this season. That wrinkle adds intrigue to their matchup against the Mavericks because Dallas can absolutely win this series if Boston plays down to competition as it did even on occasion in the first three rounds or during prior playoff runs.

In retrospect, we know the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons were the best team in that postseason bracket. In real-time, though, it was a shock to see them dominate a star-studded Los Angeles Lakers team that none of us knew at the time were about to fall off the cliff as a championship-caliber team. In 2008, the 66-win Boston Celtics beat the Lakers in six games to win a title and were clearly the best team in the league from start to finish. For the 2020 title, the Lakers started the season winning 17 of their first 19 games. Upon resuming basketball in the COVID-19 bubble, the Lakers capped matters with a title run to prove they were the NBA’s best team for the entire season. For comparison’s sake, the 2024 Celtics’ path to the Finals has been similar to that of the 2016 and 2017 Cavaliers, who maintained a double-digit point differential while essentially sleepwalking through the East.

Such fortune isn’t foreign to the Celtics since Tatum or Brown joined the franchise. This will be their second NBA Finals appearance together. The duo has dominated the Eastern Conference since James migrated West in 2019. In that time, Boston (.656) trails only Milwaukee (.665) for the NBA’s highest win percentage and has nine more playoff wins than any team in the league (48 to second-place Miami’s nine). Four of the next seven teams on that playoff wins list since James’ Eastern Conference departure five years ago, including his aforementioned 2020 Lakers.

The Celtics will enter these Finals with the best winning regular-season win percentage of any Eastern Conference team since the 2013 Heat. They have the best roster, top-end talent and prior playoff experience to get the championship trophy. Now, though, Boston has more pressure than ever to actually get it done.