“It’s off to Smart for the seventh game … knocked and then tipped in!” 

Last season, Derrick White’s heroic offensive rebound kept the Celtic’s season afloat. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Miami Heat, it seemed that the Celtics were en route to a consecutive trip to the NBA finals. The Celtics looked like the ones to finally end the Heat’s team that barely made the playoffs, Cinderella postseason run. Right? 

The Celtics would lose Game 7 against the Heat, 103 — 84. 

The Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era of Celtics basketball has produced high expectations followed by disappointing shortcomings. It is a cruel cycle that Celtics fans (myself included) have endured over the last seven years. 

About halfway through into the 2023-2024 NBA season, this revitalized Celtics team boasts a 34-10 record (32-12 last season). Right before the season opener, ESPN had the Celtics as the third best odds to win the finals

This season appears to be different — for the better. There are glimpses of hope that this year’s Celtics are the real deal. With key additions to the lineup and noticeable player improvement, this Celtics squad plays an unprecedented fluid style of basketball. Here’s why:

The Unicorn we didn’t want but needed: Kristaps Porzingis

On June 23, 2023, the Celtics received Kristaps Porzingis from the Washington Wizards. As part of a three-team trade that also included the Memphis Grizzlies, the Celtics traded away players Marcus Smart, Danillo Gallinarai and Mike Muscala. 

Any questions about Porzingis’s capabilities were quickly shunned as the Latvian center scored 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks against his former team, the New York Knicks, in his debut. 

In an interview, Porzingis commented “I’m playing good basketball, but last year, I also played good basketball. But nobody saw that, you know?”

Currently, Porzingis looks like the perfect complement that the Celtics have desperately craved the last few seasons. Standing at 7 foot 2 inches, Porzingis has proven that he can stay light on his feet, guard the three-pointer, midrange and the paint with promising results. Even when an opposing player gets a step ahead of him, Porzingis can recover quickly, contesting the shot with ease

Offensive skills have never been Porzingis’ concern. In his stints with the Knicks, Mavericks, and Wizards, Porzingis was treated as either a first or second option. Despite being a solid 20 points per game scorer, his potential was misused, resulting in subpar team success. 

This season, Porzingis truly looks like the best version of himself. When left open, he shoots the ball without hesitation. His wide skillsets open up pathways for himself and others: Bully smaller defenders in the paint, grab offensive rebounds and make the simple pass to open shooters when double-teamed. 

With Porzingis blossoming into a two-way player, he can perform a little bit of everything at an extremely high level. 

No, it’s not too good to be Jrue

On Sept. 27, 2023, the Celtics traded Malcolm Brogden, Robert Williams and two draft picks to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Jrue Holiday

Holiday’s defense was his biggest strength as he was named to multiple All-Defensive selections and two All-Star selections in the past. He also played an instrumental role in helping the Milwaukee Bucks win the 2021 NBA Finals, earning their first title in over 50 years. 

This season, Holiday is averaging 13.2 points, 4.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Compared to last season with the Bucks, where he averaged 19.3, 4.8 and 0.2 respectively, it seemed that Holiday had regressed. Even his from 47.9% to 45.6%.  

These declines in production are unwarranted. Jrue currently has a plus-minus rating of +257, which is fourth on the Celtics. Although it hurts to say it, Jrue looks like a better fit than Marcus Smart — fan favorite, 2022 Defensive Player of the Year and previous point guard for the Celtics. 

Both players are elite defenders, capable of defending all five positions. Over the past couple of years, Smart’s offense has steadily improved. Once a liability, Smart has improved his three-point shooting, reaching a peak in 2019-2020 where he made 34.7% of his 6.6 three-pointers attempted per game. However, Smart’s shooting was “streaky.” Sometimes, he would casually make five three-pointers; other times, he would shoot the Celtics out of games. 

Jrue’s style of play provides another layer of stability to the Celtic’s offense. The Celtics don’t need Jrue to do too much. In fact, he thrives in this role. 

In a game where Jayson Tatum missed a game versus the Sacramento Kings, Holiday stepped up, scoring 21 points and dishing out 10 assists. 

“He just gives us another weapon. He's just so dynamic. Just another guy out there who can dribble, shoot and pass the ball. He can create for himself and his teammates,” said Jayson Tatum

As the Celtics starting point guard, Holiday’s role is instrumental in facilitating the offense. Holiday will search for the most ideal player to pass the ball to. At the same time, Holiday’s elite defense loosens the burden for Tatum and Brown, allowing them to focus more on the offensive side. 

But Holiday has proven to rise to important moments. In dismantled plays, Holiday is capable of creating his shot through isolation. Holiday’s shooting is respectable enough for opponents to honor it. If needed, Holiday could use his body as a shield as he drives effortlessly to the rim for a layup. 

From Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, the Celtics struggled to find a reliable long term point guard. Now, it seems that the Celtics have finally found that defense in Holiday. 

Derrick White and the MVP chants 

In a homecoming game against the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 31, 2023, Spurs fans chanted, “White’s An All-Star! (clap clap clap), White’s An All-Star!” White scored 17 points and dished  out five assists in the Celtics win.  

Derrick White has the highest plus-minus on this Celtics squad, with a rating of +364. He is not only one of the most consistent players on the Celtics but in the entire league. White attributes his success to legendary Spurs coach Greg Popovich. 

“He’s one of the great examples of working through it. He played in the G League for a couple of years, didn’t even think he belonged in the league, … but he worked his fanny off,” Popovich told the Denver Gazette on Jan. 17.

This season, White is averaging 16.0 points, 4.8 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. 

These numbers are phenomenal for a star-studded team like the Celtics. Aside from looking at statistics, White seems to make the correct reads both on offense and defense. 

All of the small things he provides — absorbing contact from a larger player, passing the ball to the open man, grabbing the offensive rebound on last-second possessions — are instrumental to the Celtic's success. His style of play may not be flashy, but it is surely impactful. 

His gritty and humble nature has made him a favorite amongst the Celtics fanbase. Once viewed as an undersized guard, White is now an instrumental piece on a winning team. 

The remarkable thing? White has gotten better with each passing year. He’s proven that he can step up in clutch moments. There’s no telling how high his ceiling may be. 

“I know I belong in this league. I know what I can do in this league. [I've] just gotta continue to improve and work on those things,” he asserted confidently.

It seems that White has found a new home in Boston.

Why everything fits

It is no secret that in years past, the Celtics have had an extremely predictable offense: let Tatum and Brown take the court. A style of “your turn” and “my turn” can either be very effective or instantly cause the team to lose the game. In both cases, the lack of ball movement would certainly ignite frustrations amongst other players. 

The Celtics have steadily moved away from this game plan. The theme for the 2023-2024 Celtics is versatility. Nobody needs to be the de facto scorer for the Celtics to win a game anymore. 

Tatum and Brown can continue to do their thing. It’s what they were drafted for in the first place. With this starting lineup, everybody is a threat on the offensive side. They are all big, yet capable of creating their own shot. It truly makes the opposing teams’ job much harder when everyone is a weapon on both ends of the floor. 

The Celtics bench has depth. Al Horford can continue to scorch the hoop, shooting 49.1% of his three-pointers at 3.9 attempts per game. Payton Prichard and Sam Hauser provide the much-needed spark off the bench with three-point shooting. On defense, Luke Kornet’s seven-foot frame has immense defensive value when it comes to shot blocking (the Kornet special) or disrupting pick-and-roll plays. 

Bold postseason predictions 

“We've had so much team success and had our fair share of individual success and accolades, and the only thing left is to really win a championship,” said Jayson Tatum.

Assuming no major injuries, the Celtics can realistically earn a trip to the 2024 NBA Finals. 

The road will not be easy, for the Eastern Conference seems to be much stronger compared to years past.

In the first two rounds, I expect the Celtics to encounter young and determined teams to prove themselves. This includes teams such as the Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, formidable opponents that will push the Celtics to at least five games.

The greatest hurdle will occur in the Conference Finals. A matchup with the powerhouses of the East — the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia Sixers — seems imminent. These games will be a testament to the Celtics' strength. While it would be nice for Jayson Tatum to bail the Celtics out with 50 points, this strategy simply isn’t sustainable in the playoffs, as seen in the 2023 Eastern Conference finals. 

While the Celtics currently hold the both the third-best offensive and second-defensive rating in the league at the moment, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The playoffs slow down the entire pace. When shots are not falling, the Celtics will need to figure out a slightly modified gameplan, one that does not include Tatum and Brown playing hero ball all forty eight minutes. Perhaps they could take some inspiration from the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, where ball movement has reigned supreme. 

Even if the Celtics make the NBA finals, the worst scenario they could encounter is a matchup against the Denver Nuggets, the reigning NBA champions who snapped the Celtics’ 20 home game win streak just over a week ago. 

I am confident that if the Celtics maintain their dominant style of play into the playoffs, they are in legitimate contention to bring glory back to Boston since the 2007-2008 season. But like years prior, we can only hope that this squad continues to perform well in big moments. This season genuinely looks like the Celtic's best window to finally get over the hump.

As Celtics legend Kevin Garnett once told the entire world after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals, “Anything is possible!”