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Are the Celtics enjoying the easiest path ever to an NBA Finals?

Are the Celtics enjoying the easiest path ever to an NBA Finals?

Indiana Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton's availability for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals is in question, raising more concerns about the worthiness of the Boston Celtics' avenue to the NBA Finals.

Should Haliburton's left hamstring, which sidelined him for a stretch in January, cost him the rest of this series, the Celtics could face close-out games against a third straight opponent without its best player. Jimmy Butler missed the entirety of the Miami Heat's five-game opening-round loss to Boston. Donovan Mitchell missed the Cleveland Cavaliers' final two losses of a five-game Eastern Conference semifinals.

Even if Haliburton is hobbled, would this be the easiest path ever to an NBA Finals?

With Tyrese Haliburton hobbled, the Pacers likely won’t stand in Boston’s way much longer. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Not statistically speaking, at least. Boston's opponents — the Heat (46-36), Cavaliers (48-34) and Pacers (47-35) — have won an average of 47 games. Since the league expanded to its current 16-team format for the 1984 playoffs, 18 NBA Finalists have faced a lower average (or its equivalent) through three rounds:

18. 2020 Los Angeles Lakers (46.9)

T15. 2016 Golden State Warriors (46.7), 2001 Philadelphia 76ers (46.7), 1985 Boston Celtics (46.7)

14. 1989 Detroit Pistons (46)

13. 1986 Boston Celtics (45.7)

12. 2003 New Jersey Nets (45.3)

T10. 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers (45), 2002 New Jersey Nets (45)

9. 1995 Orlando Magic (44.7)

8. 1991 Chicago Bulls (44.3)

T6. 2013 Miami Heat (44), 1983-84 Boston Celtics (44)

5. 1988 Los Angeles Lakers (43.7)

T3. 2023 Denver Nuggets (43.3), 1985 Los Angeles Lakers (43.3)

2. 1984 Los Angeles Lakers (40.7)

1. 1987 Los Angeles Lakers (39.3)

A few observations:

  • Those years between Michael Jordan's last dance with the Chicago Bulls and the rise of peak LeBron James were rough in the East. The 2003 New Jersey Nets won 49 games and faced opponents who won an average of 45.3 games. It is a wonder they took two games from the Spurs in the NBA Finals.

  • The Western Conference during the heyday of Magic Johnson's 1980s Lakers: Woof.

  • It is difficult to parse injuries, mostly because dudes in the 1980s were playing big minutes on bum legs. For example, Larry Drew, the starting point guard for the 1984 Kansas City Kings, played all three games of a first-round series against the Lakers on what he later described as "a knee that was only 60% healthy and I was dragging around." No box score can properly account for these health issues.

  • Ten of the 18 teams won the title, so preparedness has little to do with championship worthiness.

  • A lot of these teams were juggernauts. Eleven of them won 62 or more games, including the 1985 Lakers (65-17), 1986 Celtics (67-15), 2013 Heat (66-16) and 2016 Warriors (73-9). They were handing out a lot of regular-season losses to their conference brethren, and they earned their easy paths.

  • The reverse is true for teams on tougher roads. The eight most difficult paths to the NBA Finals include those of the sixth-seeded 1995 Rockets and fifth-seeded 2020 Heat, two of the four lowest seeds ever to reach the title series. Higher seeds face teams with fewer wins; lower seeds face teams with more wins. So it stands to reason that the 64-win Celtics — who won 14 more games than any team in the conference — would face an easier schedule. That list of most difficult roads, by the way:

TEAM

ROUND 1

ROUND 2

ROUND 3

AVG. WINS

2009 Magic

PHI (41-41)

BOS (62-20)

CLE (66-16)

56.3

1995 Rockets

UTA (60-22)

PHX (47-35)

SAS (62-20)

56.3

2020 Heat

IND (45-28)

MIL (56-17)

BOS (48-24)

56*

2002 Lakers

POR (49)

SAS (58-24)

SAC (61-21)

56

2010 Celtics

MIA (47-35)

CLE (61-21)

ORL (59-23)

55.7

2006 Mavs

MEM (49-33)

SAS (63-19)

PHX (54-28)

55.3

2005 Spurs

DEN (49-33)

SEA (52-30)

PHX (62-20)

54.3

2001 Lakers

POR (50-32)

SAC (55-27)

SAS (58-24)

54.3

Either or both of this year's fifth-seeded Mavericks and sixth-seeded Pacers could join that list of the toughest roads to the NBA Finals. While Indiana trails its series to Boston, 2-0, Dallas leads the Western Conference finals by the same margin against the Minnesota Timberwolves after a thrilling Game 2 win.

If the Mavericks win this season, we will applaud their difficult road to a ring, but that storyline would be lost to time once we begin the legacy-based discussion about The Moment Luka Dončić Officially Arrived.

We generally understand that the West was a gauntlet in the 2000s, but nobody is having a meaningful conversation now about how rough the sledding was for those early 2000s Lakers. We talk about the dominance of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal and one of the worst officiated games in NBA history — Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals — and its relation to the league's officiating scandal.

Every champion has its story, and there is a chance the cupcake road could be Boston's this season. That will depend on how the Celtics' path unfolds from here. Do the Timberwolves or Mavericks pose a worthy threat in the next round? Might Jayson Tatum capture Finals MVP in convincing fashion, stamping his spot in Celtics lore? If Kristaps Porziņģis never gets healthy, and Boston still wins, are we having a different health discussion? What if the Celtics repeat down the road, becoming a dynasty of their own?

The schedule is Boston's story right now. It may not be in two weeks. It will not be in two years, unless they fail to win and this group is still searching for a first title. Then they will be the Forever Bridesmaid who could not even finish the job when most of the work was done for them by injury and happenstance.

Here is what we know at this moment: These Celtics are one of a handful of teams who never had to face a 50-win opponent on its path to the NBA Finals, and, if Haliburton cannot return, they would be the sole one to beat those opponents without their best player on the floor for any of the series-clinching games.

Even more fortunate for them, perhaps, are the injuries that led these Celtics to the Heat, Cavaliers and Pacers. Indiana beat Milwaukee without Giannis Antetokounmpo and New York without half its rotation. Joel Embiid's knee injury impacted Philadelphia's seeding and its ability to emerge from the first round.

Injuries are part of the process. Nobody remembers that the 1985 Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns without their three best players in the first round, even as LA's Bob McAdoo said during the series, "I'm not going to sit here and be political and say, 'Oh, they've got a great team,' because they are without Walter Davis, James Edwards and Larry Nance. Without those players, we should be running away with this."

An excerpt from a UPI story on those same Lakers' Western Conference finals against Denver: "[Alex] English is not the only injured Nugget, just the most seriously hurt. The others are Calvin Natt, Mike Evans and Lafayette Lever with knee injuries, Dan Issel with a bruised thigh, and Wayne Cooper with a rib injury." Yet all we talk about is how the Lakers got their revenge on the Celtics in the 1985 NBA Finals.

We do not need decades to pass to forget the road to a championship. Is anyone arguing that the 2022 Warriors beat the Nuggets without Jamal Murray, the Grizzlies without Ja Morant and the Mavericks with a diminished Dončić? No, they taught the Celtics a lesson in the NBA Finals and restored their dynasty.

Last year Denver defeated the Timberwolves without Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid, the Suns without Chris Paul for four games and Deandre Ayton for the clincher, and the Lakers with LeBron James on a foot injury that two doctors apparently said needed surgery. We instantly stamped Nikola Jokić as an all-time great and his Nuggets as a potential dynasty.

It seems the only absence we ever really discuss is Jordan's in the mid-1990s, when his baseball career opened wide a championship window for the Rockets. Heck, we even discredit Orlando's road to the 1995 NBA Finals, even though Jordan was on the court for the entire six-game series. Maybe it is all mystique.

Maybe it is just the stories we tell. But a champion is a champion, and Boston will be one if it is one.

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