Let’s be clear: Celtics are the NBA Finals front-runners in the East

Yahoo Sports

BOSTON – It’s a five-hour flight from Oakland, California, to Boston, and you know what? Screw it, let’s all make reservations now. Grab a room at the Union Square Marriott, get the early-bird rate at the Four Seasons, clear two weeks from your calendar and get your popcorn ready. The NBA’s “Death Star” has a new rebellion.

Think I’m kidding? I’m done doubting Boston. The Celtics rallied from 18 down to beat Oklahoma City, outlasted Charlotte with a skeleton crew and drop-kicked surprising Orlando. On Thursday, Boston fell behind Golden State by 17, made 21.9 percent of its threes — and clipped the Warriors 92-88. Jayson Tatum — a deer in the headlights the first three and a half quarters — iced the game with a pair of free throws with six seconds left. After Tatum’s two-point, first-half clunker, coach Brad Stevens gathered with his staff and discussed sitting the 19-year old rookie. And then he didn’t.

“He’s going to be really good,” Stevens said. “And really good players have to play through some stuff. On the nights you don’t have it, you have to dig deep and find a way.”

Unreal. How did this happen? Expectations for Boston cratered when Gordon Hayward’s season ended five minutes into it. The Celtics started the season 0-2. They haven’t lost since. Their 14-game winning streak is the longest since Golden State won 14 in a row last season. We know how that year ended.

I know: Relax, Mannix. It’s November, Mannix. Boston is starting two members of Generation Z, Mannix. That’s true. Jaylen Brown is 21, in his second year, and hours before Thursday’s game learned that his childhood friend, Trevin Steede, had passed away. Brown played, scored 22 points, helped hold Klay Thompson to 13 and was declared “the difference” by Kevin Durant after the game.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, who scored a team-high 22 points, dunks against Golden State on Thursday night. (Getty Images)
The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, who scored a team-high 22 points, dunks against Golden State on Thursday night. (Getty Images)

“I knew coming into today that he would have wanted me to play,” Brown said. “It was hard getting my thoughts together, but after talking to his mom and his family, they inspired me to come out and play.”

This team defends. Last season, the Celtics were middle of the pack in team defense. This year, they are No. 1. Golden State routinely stumbles into 100 points. On Thursday, they were held to 88. “They play tough and physical,” Durant said. Two teams have put 100-plus on Boston — and none during this streak.

This team is resilient. At halftime, down five, Stevens ripped the top off a marker. He jotted down the Warriors’ transition points, the number of scores off back cuts and the Celtics’ field-goal percentage (30.2 percent) in the first half. And then he reminded his team that they were down five. “With the group we have, with the things we have been through in such a short season so far, we always fight to the end,” Tatum said. “Tonight was not the first.”

This team is just good. Kyrie Irving had five points through three quarters. He had 11 in the fourth. The Skeptics of Irving as a Franchise Player Society is as popular these days as a ski club on South Beach. Isaiah Thomas set a high bar as a fourth-quarter scoring weapon last season. Irving is meeting it.

And think about it: Boston didn’t play that well on Thursday. It was an “A” defensive effort. Offensively, it was barely a “C.” Irving made 25 percent of his shots, Marcus Smart missed everything and at one point Stevens turned to an Aron Baynes/Daniel Theis “Viking” frontcourt for a spark on the floor. Brown and Al Horford (18 points) kept Boston in the game long enough for Irving to take it over at the end.

Dismiss Boston. Fine. But tell me which Eastern Conference horse you are riding with? Think the Cavaliers are sorting through the same old issues? That rock-bottom defensive rating says otherwise. Buying the Wizards’ rhetoric? Let’s see what that bench looks like come spring. Milwaukee? The young Bucks aren’t there yet.

With Irving and Horford — an early Defensive Player of the Year candidate, by the way — the Celtics have the veterans needed to make plays in pressure situations and young stars who get better by the day. They have a coach who is entering Popovich-ian air and a bench that plays hellacious D. Hayward’s injury opened the door for others, and they have barreled through it.

Laugh at Boston. Just know: Golden State isn’t. Warriors coach Steve Kerr called Boston the East’s “team of the future” this week, and inside that Warriors locker room they are aware that future could be now. Curry played along with a few leading questions about a Finals matchup after the game (“It’s very, very likely, right?”) and joked that he hears “the weather is great here in June.”

It is. Mild, usually mid-70s with a nice breeze coming off the ocean water. Legal Sea Foods has a great patio, and tourists dig The Freedom Trail. Golden State believes it will have to deal with Boston eventually. This could be the year they do.

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