What The Celtics’ Title Means For The NBA

What The Celtics’ Title Means For The NBA article feature image

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics celebrates with the Larry O’Brien Trophy after the game against the Dallas Mavericks during Game 5 of the 2024 NBA Finals on June 17, 2024 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Banner 18 will hang in Boston.

The league's most storied franchise (after breaking a tie with the Lakers) continued its illustrious history by adding the 2024 NBA Championship Monday as the Boston Celtics defeated the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 in their best of seven series.

The Celtics were +400 to win the title in preseason after trading for Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday last summer. They were the best team from the moment preseason tipped, through the early games of the holidays through the dog days of the deadline and into the post-All-Star push. They were consistent, they were dominant, they racked up all sorts of impressive numbers on their path to the title.

"The eventual NBA champion has been listed below 20-1 entering the season in nine straight years, 12 of the past 13 years and 38 of the past 40 years now."

Celtics were the +400 favorites 🏆 https://t.co/TUC2zPVdsz

— Evan Abrams (@EvanHAbrams) June 18, 2024

In the end, it doesn't matter that Jimmy Butler was hurt, and then Jarrett Allen and then Donovan Mitchell were hurt, or that Tyrese Haliburton was hurt. It doesn't matter that the Eastern Conference was worse than the West by any measure. It doesn't matter that Jayson Tatum was not a serious MVP candidate and didn't win Finals MVP. What matters is the trophy they raised and the banner that will hang in TD Garden this fall.

The way Boston did it informs us about where the league is. Last year, the Nuggets had the best player in the league and in the Finals series in Nikola Jokic. The best player in the Finals wore blue in Luka Doncic this spring. But both the Nuggets and the Celtics won not because of the individual greatness of their star players, but because of how those players made their teams better by doing what their teams needed.

Neither led the top of the league in usage like Doncic, and while Jokic has led the league in touches the last two seasons, the Celtics have a much more egalitarian and team-oriented approach.

Many teams couldn't trade for Kristaps Porzingis. They wouldn't have been willing to part with Marcus Smart, long the heart and soul of the Celtics, and even if they had, there would have been tension about having to give up precious stats that go towards fame and contract rewards. Fewer teams would have had enough left over to trade for Jrue Holiday, to integrate him without making him an afterthought and to play in such a way where Holiday could only help, not hurt when his offensive cold spells hit.

You needed this combination of two stars who had grown up together, had failed so often and so painfully and yet were still determined to do it together.

You needed this coach, who faced huge questions about his over-reliance on 3-point variance and inexperience after being thrust into the role two years ago after Ime Udoka's scandal, but who constantly preached things the players believed in.

You needed Porzingis as the stretch five that changed the dynamic.

You needed steady veterans like Al Horford and Jrue Holiday, never too high, never too low, always professional, to help set a tone and prevent the emotional meltdowns Boston succumbed to in the past.

You needed young contributors like Sam Hauser who had a great finals, Payton Pritchard who was excellent all year and never a net negative, and guys like Xavier Tillman who filled in when Porzingis was hurt with huge minutes in Game 3.

Winning an NBA championship should still be about the team winning, not just one star etching his name in history. Everyone should have to sacrifice, everyone should have to lift each other up.

The Celtics, ultimately, were about that.

One of the problems with playing in a place like Boston or the Lakers is that when you win, you're simply "carrying on the tradition." That's what it means. But it had been 16 years since the Boston Celtics had won a title, and they had lost in painful fashion in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023. They kept going up the same hill over and over and failing over and over.

That's what makes this a little sweeter than so many of those other Celtics titles throughout history that seemed honestly so easy back when the league had fewer teams and fewer brain cells in front offices.

Boston was the heavy favorite in this series despite being a huge underdog according to public money and pundit picks. National media was all over the superstar, Luka Doncic, and these Mavericks. It made sense; most of us had waited for the moment when the Celtics would really face a tough enough team to test and, eventually, break them.

It never happened. Part of that is because of how the East shook out. Part of that is because of this quite frankly flukey team they faced in the Finals. (No 5th seed has ever won the title, still, after Dallas lost Monday, and only two teams past third have ever won the title in league history.)

But the Celtics didn't choose that. They didn't pick their path. They weren't offered to face teams without their best players, or to face a team where PJ Washington was expected to be the third-best scoring option and the team had no offense if a very injury Eastern European man wasn't dribbling for 15 seconds. They didn't choose for the Bucks to never gel and then Giannis to get hurt, or for the Knicks to implode under the weight asked of their starters, or for the Nuggets to blow a 20-point lead in Game 7 and Anthony Edwards be unfit to take the crown.

They played who was in front of them.

And they beat the ever loving hell out of them.

Boston finished with just three losses, and the 8th-best margin of victory among teams with three or fewer losses all-time. They become the 5th team of the top five in SRS (Simple Rating System, point differential vs. strength of schedule) to win the title. Eight of the top 11 teams in that category won the title.

Boston played selflessly, built around Tatum's combination of athleticism and skill. Jaylen Brown, the rightful Finals MVP, became the piece that brought everything together this season. He meshed seamlessly with the new additions of Porzingis and Holiday. The Celtics were great in pretty much every combination of players they used this season, including in the playoffs when typically bench players have to be excised from the rotation.

They were simultaneously top-heavy and deep. They were the No.1 schedule-adjusted offense and the No.2 schedule-adjusted defense. They beat one of the best defenses in the league in the Cavaliers, one of the best offenses in the league in the Pacers, and one of the best superstars in the league in Luka Doncic and his plucky Mavs.

Boston has a sustainable formula. They may have to replace Al Horford if he hangs them up. They may have to reconfigure the bench. Kristaps Porzingis' health will again be a concern next season.

But those are concerns for another day. For now, the trophy is back in Boston where it has spent so many days. Boston's narrative isn't about the individual triumph of all time greats, but of 15 players, a coaching staff and front office coming together and making the best team in the NBA.

For the league, the Celtics present both a team you have to be able to be better than, and a team that doesn't seem unbeatable. We're used to the looming figure.

"You have to be able to get past LeBron."

"You can have a good team but you know Jordan's waiting."

"Sure, great season, but Steph is still Steph."

We've entered a new era of parity, and while the Celtics feel more beatable than those teams, they present different challenges because one injury doesn't derail them.

The Celtics lost their starter center for almost the entire playoffs and much of the regular season and didn't slip a step. Jayson Tatum did not have a magnificent season by his standards statistically. And yet here they were on Monday night raising the banner.

Boston might be beatable, but that might only make it more frustrating when they're able to do the things they need to beat you.

One thing is for certain, though. If you're going to beat Boston, you can't bring a one-man army like the Mavericks did. It's going to take not just five guys, but 7-8 who can all play, who all can defend, who all can score. If you don't have balance, the Celtics will lean on you until you flip upside down.

It wasn't hard for the Boston Celtics this season, at least not any harder than any NBA title that takes six months of professional basketball is. There wasn't adversity. Because the Celtics went through everything you need to and did all the work you have to in order to avoid it.

The 2024 Boston Celtics were, quite simply, the best.

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Doug Ziefel
Jul 22, 2024 UTC