LOS ANGELES — The Boston Celtics have been mainstays near the top of the Eastern Conference for nearly a decade, but breaking through and becoming champions is a barrier they’ve yet to cross — so many iterations of teams who’ve contended in the Jayson Tatum era.
This version feels a little different, even if they still dance with volatility every now and again, even if they show signs of combustion in moments of truth.
The Celtics didn’t play their best game against the Lakers on Christmas Day, but one thing is for certain: Their best game is better than anyone’s best game so far this season. That hasn’t always been the case over the last six years, but it definitively feels that way now.
Their six best players blow everyone in the league away, with a barrage of 3-pointers, blocks and stops — and they do it in a flurry, in the blink of an eye.
Welcome to the NBA season, where there are snacks in the back the folks from Las Vegas didn’t devour during the in-season tournament. Christmas Day is the unofficial start of the NBA season, even though some teams are nearly 30 games in.
The Celtics aren’t the best team just because they own the league’s best record at 23-6 or even because Tatum’s production has taken another Herculean leap from last season, because it hasn’t. They’re the best team so far because they could withstand a 40-point barrage from Anthony Davis by fighting fire with fire, an import named Kristaps Porziņģis who kept Davis and the rest of the Lakers busy all night with 28 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and so many alterations of shots at the rim he might as well be called “The Tailor.” The Lakers were seeing ghosts when he wasn’t around and had no concept of his length when attacking the rim.
But it’s not just about this one game, it would be foolish to focus on one singular event to draw such conclusions. He’s been doing this all season, fitting in effortlessly with the Celtics — his field-goal numbers are at a career high (53%) while shooting a career-low 12 shots a game — still scoring nearly 20 a night.
His versatility unlocks the offense and tightens up the defense, alleviating pressure from Tatum and Jaylen Brown to feel as they must do everything, every time down.
“We haven’t had a low post presence like that since I’ve been on the Celtics,” Tatum said. “It creates so many problems.”
The NBA moves so fast, with infusions of new talent across the board it’s easy for someone like Porziņģis to get lost in the shuffle. Things didn’t exactly work between him and Luka Dončić in Dallas, so he wore the stink on the way out.
And playing in Washington for a most unserious franchise will always lead one to believe the good players are unserious fellows, so whatever production amassed would be presented with an asterisk.
“I’m playing good basketball, but last year, I also played good basketball,” Porziņģis said. “But nobody saw that, you know?”
Or no one knew how to contextualize it, because he spent so many years at every stop battling injuries and reliability. Being sent to Boston didn’t send shock waves through the league like say, the Damian Lillard trade, but there was more than a little curiosity surrounding how he could help the Celtics if he stayed upright.
They stay ready for opportunistic transactions, so even before they acquired Jrue Holiday or even had an inkling he would be attainable, they were OK with sending Marcus Smart to Memphis to get someone like Porziņģis.
With Holiday, they were the beneficiary of all the Lillard drama from the summer, when the Bucks sacrificed a mainstay in Holiday to upgrade at the position. The Bucks had no way of knowing Holiday would be rerouted to Boston in a later deal, placing him with Derrick White in a backcourt that wreaks havoc on opposing backcourts and also, helps the Celtics play with a pace not many teams can match.
Holiday, who hit 3-of-5 3-pointers on the way to scoring 18 with seven rebounds and seven assists, knows what a championship team looks like. Even though the Bucks didn’t look like champions until they became one in 2021 — facing myriad tests that felt like things would go the other way, but didn’t, that experience is there.
“It’s mentality and consistency,” Holiday told Yahoo Sports. “I think we’ve been pretty consistent through the year, which is something that helps us build habits for times where we’ll really need them.”
The numbers say the Celtics are 24th in that category but they take and make more 3-pointers than anyone else in the league, and do so in waves. If you thought the Celtics overwhelmed the Lakers in that category for their run-away-and-hide 126-115 win, you’d be wrong. The Celtics shot just 31% from 3 while the Lakers shot 10 percentage points better with the same amount of makes.
But they withstood a few runs from the Lakers because they kept LeBron James in check, holding him to 16 points, nine rebounds and eight assists — throwing multiple defenders his way and feeling reasonably comfortable with every one in his face.
James’ supercomputer could only dissect so much because the Celtics were rarely off-balance, never compromised and never giving anything but the appropriate fear that James’ mere presence demands.
Porziņģis and Holiday gushed about White and how underrated he is. It took a year or so, but he feels so much more comfortable with the Celtics than he did initially — a mark to both his basketball character and good, old-fashioned player development.
The hesitance in launching 3s is gone and his 3-point percentage has jumped from 31 to 42 in a span of two years. He’s always been a hound defensively and a heady player, hence his tip-in at the buzzer of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals last spring that put the Celtics at the doorstep of history, but now there’s an added confidence and marksmanship that completes the Celtics.
Those elements complete the Celtics in such a way Tatum doesn’t attack the game like he has to score 40 every night for them to win. The offensive package has been more refined but he’s pretty polished as is. However he looks more comfortable letting the game come to him and not chasing it.
So many times he allowed plays to be made for him, playing within the framework of the offense, knowing the attention he commands is job one. He resisted the urge, with James having an off night, to attack him and create a lopsided matchup.
“You gotta give ’Bron a lot of credit, he’s been the most complete player in the game for a very long time,” Tatum said. “There’s a lot that you can learn something about like obviously, the way that he thinks the game two, three steps ahead of everybody else. And as a younger player, just always trying to find ways to impact the game. But still want to be the best player and dominate, that’s what I try to do.”
They’re not the best team so far because of any one attribute, but because of all of them — hoping it holds together till June.
Welcome to the NBA season, you’re all caught up now.