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The Celtics Are Waiting For A Real Challenge

Al Horford reacts during the Boston Celtics' Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Of all the paths to the NBA Finals, none has been easier so far than the Boston Celtics'. They've already secured a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals after having the pleasure of beating up two depleted opponents, and yet they're in a state that could be described as suffering from success. The reason they aren't receiving much praise—aside from the inherent explanation that they're a source of happiness for New Englanders—is a combination of soft competition and high expectations.

In the first round, the top-seeded Celtics had a real treat: revenge against the Miami Heat sans Jimmy Butler. There was a brief scare in Game 2, when the Heat broke shooting records and it briefly felt like the beginning of a repeat of last season's conference finals, but that quickly faded and the Celtics closed out the series in five games.

Up next were the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had just played seven games against the Orlando Magic, didn't have Jarrett Allen, and gradually lost more key players to injuries as the series progressed. Cleveland's Game 2 victory was in fact unsustainable. The Celtics wrapped that series up 4-1 with Wednesday night's 113-98 win, a game in which the Cavs were without Allen, Donovan Mitchell, and Caris LeVert. While the rest of the team kept Game 5 competitive, and Marcus Morris scored 25 points off the bench, Boston ultimately didn't face much of a threat.

This is what was supposed to happen for the team with the best regular-season record. If the Celtics hadn't decisively squashed the Heat and Cavaliers, it would've been worrisome. Those underwhelming opponents (and, again, the part about being the pride of Boston) contribute to the lack of enthusiasm around the team. The Celtics have handled themselves well so far, but they also haven't faced a real test. Will it come next round? Unclear. They'll either get the New York Knicks or Indiana Pacers, the former of which is short-staffed due to injury and the latter a threat only when they get to play against short-staffed teams.

All of this was apparent when the playoff bracket was set; the East looked pretty easy for Boston even before the Milwaukee Bucks lost Giannis Antetokounmpo to a calf strain. As a result, in comparison to the other ongoing playoff series, the Celtics' journey has faded to the background. Knicks-Pacers, Timberwolves-Nuggets, and Thunder-Mavericks have all featured objectively more compelling battles. It's difficult to get as fired up about Al Horford's contributions as the Celtics calmly and surgically dismantle a bunch of guys who should already be at home by now.

Without drifting too much into the intangible, there's definitely some other vibe-based factor as to why nobody outside of Celtics fans are jazzed about the team in the same way they might be at least intrigued by, say, the peak of the Golden State Warriors. An informal poll (it was more of an argument) with some of Defector's basketbloggers left me with the following: Derrick White is interesting, and possibly even endearing, and also these playoffs haven't really revealed any compelling aspects about these Celtics that weren't already established. They're collecting wins as they get closer to where they've been expected to be all along.

A lack of pizzazz is not the Celtics' fault, because these are the circumstances they wanted. By earning the best record, they earned the easier path, even as they still try to maintain some form of underdog mentality. "They say we're a superteam, but we didn't get awarded like we are," Jayson Tatum said of the Celtics' lack of accolades, after the Game 2 loss to the Cavs. Of course every remaining playoff team thinks it can win a championship, but some of these dreams are more realistic than others. For Tatum and Jaylen Brown, last season's loss to the Heat and the failure in the 2022 Finals against the Warriors have deferred what felt to them inevitable. The only measure of success left to achieve is a title. Getting to the NBA Finals is the floor for this team, and everyone knows it. And if they don't make it, everyone will be more than happy to discuss the Celtics' results in the playoffs, at length.

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