Oh God. Is This the Boston Celtics’ Year?

Ugh. Do you feel it? The walls are rattling. It isn’t noise, it’s the opposite. It’s these numbers, reverberating with an undeniable intensity to almost induce a sort of synesthesia. Numbers aren’t supposed to be able to do this, but they’re so loud you can feel them. Fifty-point win. Seventeen-point win. Fourteen-point win. Eighteen-point win. Twenty-eight-point win. Fifty-two-point win. Three wins of at least 40 points during an active 11-game winning streak. Two 50-point wins in the past six games. Three 50-point wins for the season, half the amount of such wins in franchise history. A plus-243 point differential over 11 games, the largest in NBA history.

I know. Your eyes have glazed over. They’re rolled far back, aimed at the far recesses of your brain. I get it. I feel it, too. That sound you’re hearing is the sound of your own nervous cackling—Jaylen Brown’s fifth 3-pointer with more than five minutes remaining in the first quarter of Sunday’s 140-88 dismantling of the Golden State Warriors is what did me in, personally. There is the laughter of joy—happy for you, Celtics fans—but more pointedly for the rest of us, there is the incredulous laughter of awe. The Boston Celtics have become basketball’s divine comedy. And this latest stretch of unprecedented production feels like a movement beyond Purgatorio toward Paradiso.

The Warriors have caught a ton of flak in the wake of Sunday’s blowout for leaving Brown open to start the game. Is it wrong to say there was a kernel of logic to the game plan? Brown is the worst catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter in the Celtics’ starting lineup at 34.7 percent on the season. Kristaps Porzingis is next-worst at 38.8 percent. Jayson Tatum, Derrick White, and Jrue Holiday all hit at least 40 percent of their spot-up 3s. (Actually, Holiday’s figure is closer to 50 percent.) Sorry, but what the fuck is that? Back in November, my colleague Michael Pina broke down the historic potential of Boston’s new starting lineup. “The talent is obvious, but just from the perspective of generating space, they might have no precedent,” he wrote. More than three months later, in the midst of a Celtics campaign that has easily produced the most efficient offense in NBA history, this has been more or less confirmed.

Golden State’s gambit cost it, but life is largely about trying to make the least-bad decision and living with the consequences. Who could have expected that this loss would send Steph Curry into a nostalgia-laced existential tailspin? “When you have a creative idea and it doesn’t work and you’re taking the ball out of the basket and they’re hitting 10 3s in the first quarter—that’s what we used to do to teams,” Curry said. “It’s kind of demoralizing.”

Back when the Warriors first felt inevitable—now closing in on a decade—the spider charts of Golden State’s offensive and defensive concentration were distinct: a sharp spike would jut out to represent Curry, with Klay Thompson’s off-ball steadiness and Draymond Green’s playmaking instincts giving body to this polygonal narwhal. Inversely, on defense, Green served as the narwhal’s tusk. The Warriors’ generation-defining schemes were built on the genius of three players. Kevin Durant’s three-year stint leveled things out, forming broader shapes on the chart, but there were still relative weak points on each side of the ball. Try rendering these Celtics on a spider chart and it’d probably end up looking like this:

Ringer illustration/Hail Celtics

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that after Boston’s 52-point win on Sunday, the 2023-24 Celtics (11.6) have overtaken the 2016-17 Warriors (11.4) in single-season net rating, according to NBA.com. The league’s publicly available statistical database tracks advanced stats dating back to 1996-97, when Michael Jordan’s Bulls boasted a net rating of 11.8. The Celtics have by far the easiest remaining strength of schedule in the league. Should things continue smoothly on course, they’ll eclipse that historic number, too.

The Celtics in the Tatum-Brown era, through all of its successes, have always felt like a bit of an order-of-operations jumble. The offense no longer feels as regimented as it once did. The addition of Porzingis and Holiday have not only brought clarity and ungodly efficiency—Porzingis is in the 98th percentile leaguewide as a post-up scorer, Holiday is in the 95th percentile as a spot-up shooter—but a wholesale deprioritization of who goes about initiating the offense on any given possession. Boston, with its next-level spacing, has essentially constructed an offense with almost no wrong answers. Its point guard can post up like its center; its center can shoot like its point guard. White—nominally its off-guard—leads the team in assists per game. All the while, the team’s actual two best players can simply exist: both Tatum and Brown have career-high effective field goal percentages this season.

Yet, for a team that will make history with its offense, and in a year that might be remembered as the year the NBA left the other side of the ball behind, defense is the true identifying marker of this team—one led by two 6-foot-4 guards, no less. White is about as good as it gets as a point-of-attack defender, which is high praise when his backcourt mate has essentially been the exemplar of the form for the past 15 years. As a result, Holiday has been given the freedom to operate as a Draymond Green–esque freelancer on defense—one that also happens to shoot 49.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s on the other end. Six years ago, Holiday spent the bulk of his time chasing the likes of Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell. These days he’s just as likely to spend time defending Pascal Siakam or Jaren Jackson Jr. Rare strength, a PhD-level understanding of leverage, and the fastest hands and reflexes in basketball turn him into a smooth-striding nightmare on so-called mismatches. Their ability to cross match becomes a labyrinth shifting its form in real time—the Celtics have a level of comfort in unconventional coverages that offenses aren’t always prepared to negotiate.

It would be enough to have those two shepherd a defense into the maw of a newfound 7-foot-2 Latvian rim deterrent (who is having his most successful season as a shot blocker in four seasons). But then there’s Tatum and Brown, archetypes unto themselves as long and athletic wing stoppers. The national audience on Sunday caught a glimpse of just how varied the Celtics’ defensive structure can be, right from the opening tip. Brown hounded Curry incessantly with on-ball pressure, making even the jaunt in the frontcourt a perilous journey. Curry finished the game shooting 2-for-13 and didn’t even play in the second half with the game already decided. Boston has established a proactive, playmaking modality to its defense, in what is typically a reactive exercise save for the very best individual defenders. The Celtics defense is its own attacking offense: it flows, it intuits, it creates (and cuts off) lanes for teammates to finish plays. The team has seemingly actualized the theory of what Boston’s defense could look like in this era—which is saying a whole lot when the Celtics have had a top-two defense in each of the past two seasons, and a top-five defense in three of the past five.

But modern-day enjoyment of sports is an affliction. There is a cocktail of cognitive biases keeping most of us from recognizing the Celtics as what the numbers suggest they are. To the eyes of the skeptics, the team is trapped in a kind of functional fixedness: it’s become impossible to conceive of the team as anything more than what it’d been conceived as before. But if you’re fortunate, there is a breakthrough. For what felt like a decade (yet somehow much shorter), the Toronto Raptors were terrorized by LeBron James in the postseason despite incrementally improving their regular-season lot, year after year. Trades for Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol created a new energy in the city, but for most, you didn’t believe they could win a title until they did in 2019. If the Celtics have their own LeBronto to deal with, it’s the haunting, jeering smirk of Jimmy Butler, whose (under)dogged presence affirms the idea of these Celtics as fragile front-runners. There’s only one way out and that’s through—especially with all these frightening numbers propping the team higher and higher above the competition. It could happen sooner than later for Boston. Tatum celebrated his 26th birthday on Sunday. Numerologists know: Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo won their first ring at 26; LeBron, Jordan, and Nikola Jokic won theirs at 27.

The Celtics ought to make the Finals—the East has largely fallen apart past the top three, and the second-place Bucks and third-place Cavaliers have their own litany of doubts dangling above them … and that’s without evidence of Boston being one of the greatest basketball teams to ever play the game. A first-round series against Miami is not only possible, it is cosmically necessary. All the worries that were there before remain today: Porzingis’s structural integrity, Holiday’s possible shooting regression, Tatum’s volatility in a best-of-seven, Brown’s cursed left hand. It’s easy to come up with reasons for doubt. To doubt might be the safest, easiest thing to do in the universe. The road still goes through Denver, and until you’ve reached the mountaintop, you can’t know just how much those final steps matter.

… But what if it happens? What if they do?

I often think about something Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote in 1974. I’ve thought about it ever since LeBron won his first ring in 2012, and I thought about it back in 2016-17, when the Warriors made their claim as the greatest basketball team ever. “To accept a new myth about ourselves is to simplify our memories—and to place our stamp of approval on what might become an epitaph for our era in the shorthand of history,” Vonnegut wrote. “This, in my opinion, is why critics often condemn our most significant books and poems and plays when they first appear, while praising feebler creations. The birth of a new myth fills them with primitive dread, for myths are so effective.”

In the NBA’s information age, there might not be a team with a wider gap between its statistical dominance and its standing in the hearts and minds of the public than these Celtics. Durant’s arrival in Golden State was reviled, but he was added to a proven championship blueprint. The Celtics have constructed a team as well-suited and malleable to the conditions of the present day as any, but the burden of proof remains insurmountable. The Celtics can shatter the remaining efficiency records there are left to claim, but they can’t outpace doubt.

Still, I’m beginning to entertain the possibility, and what that would mean—how much perception would change, and how far the numbers might vault them into public memory. If only to steel myself. It’s still too early to say, and maybe this is the gambler’s fallacy talking, but: What if this is the year for the Celtics? What might you be ready, able, or willing to say about them?

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