The Boston Window

Updated: June 2, 2022
Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics

A roster resurrected from the dead of early-season woes and 2021 blues; the Boston Celtics have been the best Eastern Conference squad since the halfway point of this marathon of a season. A line of demarcation in this schizophrenic swing under the reigns of rookie head coach Ime Udoka was manifested not by the normalized barrage of 3-point flurries or a single offensive cannon but instead by the most elite defensive in all of basketball. With every one of their starting 5 collecting votes for defensive player of the year, including the winner Marcus Smart, this oversized-lengthy roster appears to be the only closing unit in the NBA that is immune to the mismatch.

With their two star-wings 25 and under, the assumption around the association is that this Boston unit’s window is as long as any of the true contenders in either conference. With Jason Tatum still ascending at only 24 years young, recently vanquishing Durant, Antetokounmpo, and Butler in sequence, one would think that Boston goes as high as Tatum takes them. But there’s a variable in the equation that act like a ticking time bomb and is essential to the Celtics’ success and that is the age and future durability of born-again big-man Al Horford. Despite turning 36 the day after Game 1 of the Finals, Horford is having the postseason of his career. No longer the aged veteran bringing spot minutes and wisdom to the roster, arguably Horford was the Celtics 2nd best player in the Bucks’ game series victory. 

This is after being crossed and cremated by all 30 teams after looking semi-washed two years back in Philadelphia then exiled to NBA-Siberia in OKC with a 1st round pick attached to his name as compensation, but Boston still believed in Al as a winning weapon. Recollected in a poor asset swap in the Kemba Walker dump, Horford came home courtesy of ex-head coach and rookie president of operations Brad Stevens. 

Though Horford has been pivotal to their success, the assumption built into the Boston window is that once Horford’s play begins to diminish with age and physical limitations, their current starting center Robert Williams III will still leave them with a top 10 talent front court talent for years to come. Only 24 years young and a perfect defensive pairing with the set of two-way wings and big defensive-minded guards, the future should look bright for Boston, right? Possibly. There is a world where all of Time Lord’s injury woes fade to the waste side, and he establishes himself as the rim protector of the East. A more likely outcome though if tendency proves to continue in its linear progression, this series against Golden State may play out as a microcosm of Boston’s future.

When Williams is healthy, it allows Boston to play the styles of defense which have led them to this moment. Unfortunately, this option has been more of a luxury rather than a Celtics’ stable since in each series Time Lord has been in and out of the lineup since the bruising 7-game rumble with Milwaukee. This hasn’t ended their Final’s aspirations though, because of the transcendence and revitalization of Al Horford. But considering this time next year, Big Al will be a whopping 37 at the most punishing position in all of basketball, a strong argument could be made that this year is the outlier, and the natural curve of his decline will kick in next season.

This leaves Boston with a future riding on a big who is simply undependable in Williams. He played only 52 games last season and 61 games this year, which are both his career highs as he only logged 61 games total for his first two years combined. With the Warriors’ lack of size and Boston’s overall length at every position, the vertical spacing of Time Lord would’ve proved to be a serious issue for Kerr’s small-ball system and Golden State’s absence of a true 7-footer. Instead, it is likely from what we’ve seen in Boston’s battle in Miami, that Williams may have moments in this series, but it is doubtful he will be the factor he should be in his first Finals appearance. 

This series is a coin flip with the analytics machine favoring Boston and their defensive prowess and the NBA community favoring Golden State and their championship DNA. But if it were not for Al Horford and Boston was forced to lean on their injury-prone young big, this series would be surrounded by Warriors in 5 predictions. It is why their window is now. It’s not to say they never make it back to the Finals but there is a world where they never return. As good as Boston has been it’s almost gone forgotten that the defending champion Bucks took them 7 games without their only elite shooter on their entire roster. Chris Middleton is arguably as important to the Bucks as any Robin in the league since he is Milwaukee’s de facto closer since Giannis isn’t a shooter and 4th quarters continue to prove to be dictated by perimeter scorers.

The narrative surrounding this Celtics’ route to the Finals is one of great difficulty, defeating the Nets, Bucks, and Heat, all teams unanimously considered true contenders throughout the season. But they swept a KD-Brooklyn roster that had literally no supporting cast outside of Kyrie Irving who outside of game 1 looked like a shell of his former self. As mentioned above, the Bucks took Boston 7 without their 2nd best player and one of their primary wing defenders. And finally, as of game 5, this series against Miami was seen as sealed shut as all the Boston vs Golden State chatter circulated through the pods. Somehow, and a bammer knee, Jimmy was centimeters away from delivering a historically embarrassing dagger.

Horford also has proven to be one of the most formable Giannis defenders and without him in the future, in a game Time Lord is compromised by injuries, Antetokounmpo will punish the entire Boston roster as they try and fail to stop him. None of that matters at the moment though since they do have Horford and they’re here, in the NBA Finals. But what the Celtics players should know, is that although Bron and the Warriors have made constant Finals appearances in the last decade, this may be their one bite at the apple.

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