Updated Analytics Model Installs Surging Celtics as NBA Title Favorites

Jesse Pantuosco
September 02, 2020 - 12:53 pm

Compared to most seasons when the choice is usually between Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors and whichever team LeBron James is currently on, this year’s title field is wide open. With defending champion Toronto on the ropes and top-seeded Milwaukee scuffling of late, the scorching-hot Celtics, winners of six straight and 10 of their last 11, suddenly look like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

Tuesday’s three-point triumph over the Raptors (helped by a Marcus Smart fourth-quarter explosion and one of Kemba Walker’s signature step-backs to put the game on ice) may not have been the most convincing victory, but it pushed Boston’s series advantage to 2-0, putting the Celtics on course for their third conference finals appearance in four years. While Vegas sportsbooks are still leaning toward the Clippers (a ring with Los Angeles would put Kawhi Leonard, already a Finals MVP and champion for both Toronto and San Antonio, in rarified air), sports analytics site FiveThirtyEight.com now favors Boston, giving the Celtics 68-percent odds to come out of the Eastern Conference and a 37-percent chance of capturing what would be their record 18th Larry O’Brien trophy.

Meanwhile the Bucks, who dropped a 115-104 decision to Miami in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semis Monday night, have seen their title odds decrease drastically, falling to just three percent. That’s good for sixth among the nine teams remaining in the NBA’s Orlando bubble behind the aforementioned Celtics, Clippers (31 percent), Rockets (surprisingly given 15-percent championship odds despite their upcoming Game 7 against Oklahoma City), Lakers (eight percent) and the Heat (four percent), Milwaukee's second-round opponent.

These projections could ultimately prove meaningless, though Celtics fans have to be feeling much better about their team’s chances, especially after it looked like all hope was lost when Gordon Hayward sprained his ankle in Boston’s playoff opener two weeks ago. The Celtics are far from perfect. They don’t have much size (though Robert “Time Lord” Williams’ emergence of late has certainly helped in that respect) or depth and Kemba’s balky left knee has all the familiar symptoms of a ticking time bomb. However, the C’s pack plenty of star power with the trio of Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and are always in capable hands with cerebral head coach Brad Stevens behind the bench. The Celtics are also a defensive juggernaut (just ask Pascal Siakam, who has done next to nothing against them this series) and appear to have much better team chemistry than they did a year ago when headstrong Kyrie Irving stirred up the locker room with his usual behind-the-scenes drama.

Boston returns to the court for Game 3 Thursday night against Toronto. The 6:30 PM ET tipoff can be seen on TNT.

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