Hackett: The Celtics are giving off the look of true contenders

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By WEEI 93.7

It’s starting to feel real again now.

I think the Celtics have been an absolute joy to watch night after night dating all the way back to 2006. That’s right, the 24-58 pre-KG Celtics. The team that lost 18 games in a row. The team that nearly broke Paul Pierce’s unbreakable spirit. That team was undermanned and too young to compete, but they played hard. Blood sweat and tears night after night. A year later, blood, sweat and tears was replaced by grit and balls as Kevin Garnett so perfectly said during the “New Big 3” era.

Not much has changed since Brad Stevens took over for Doc Rivers during the summer of 2013 in terms of hustle, grit and the Celtics March Madness like effort night after night. During their improbable run during the Isaiah Thomas years from 2015-17, I coined it “Celtics Madness.” They played like a mid-major, 13-seed every night, and like those teams would often end up winning games they shouldn’t have won.

Celtics Pride is a real thing and it’s a pleasure to watch whether they win or not. That’s why the “green teamers” are so deeply invested and immovable off their positivity because that pride, grit and effort grows long-lasting roots. Those roots run deep, just like the promos during their televised games say.

It’s starting to look and feel like a new day in the playoff bubble of 2020 though isn’t it? As noted above, it’s been enjoyable around here for Green Teamers for a while now, but I think the next phase the Celtics are growing into is going to be much more fun.

In August of 2020, the Celtics are starting to wear the look of a true contender.

The hope and promise of this young team Danny Ainge has built has been its hallmark for the last several years. Hope and promise. Building and building. Collecting assets and piecing together the roster puzzle to compete and grow. The excitement of back to back Eastern Conference Finals appearances in 2017 and 2018 was real, particularly in 2018, but the Celtics were underdogs. They were and remain lovable, putting in that otherworldly level of intensity and effort that captures true Celtics fans like no other team in town.

This is different, however. It’s the first round of the playoffs against a decade’s long rival and this team looks legit. Joel Embid has been frowning for a week straight. He couldn’t muster a grin right now if you tickled him. Embid is a giant amongst men. He’s like Bigfoot and he’s a superstar level player. He’s Philly’s only hope and he knows the 76ers are toast. It’s written all over his face. The Celtics are better than the 76ers, it ain't close and he and every one of his teammates know it.

The Celtics are outclassing the 76ers and it’s been a long while since anyone around here has felt like that. I’d say since Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals when the Celtics finally blew the inferior but pesky Atlanta Hawks off the floor was the last time I felt like the Celtics were truly outclassing an opponent. I felt it again Wednesday night. Playoff teams that outclass their opponents are usually championship contenders and on August 19, 2020 this team took that long-awaited next step.

The 76ers have a legitimate star in Joel Embid, but the Celtics have two stars that are more impactful; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. If you want to add in Kemba Walker to that equation I wouldn’t argue with you. Any way you slice it, Tatum-Brown-Walker tops Embid and it’s a blowout.

Philly fans may moan that they don’t have Ben Simmons, but it would matter little. Put Simmons in there and redo the equation, Tatum-Brown-Walker tops Embid-Simmons and it’s still not close. I think it’s easy to envision Marcus Smart giving Simmons the business enough to neutralize him. Surely you don’t need more evidence to buy into that theory do you? Smart does it every night, no matter whom he’s tasked to defend, no matter their size. Talk about grit and balls or Celtics Pride, Smart defines it.

He was the toughest cut in my recent column series of the most enjoyable athletes of my lifetime: Smart was right there. Truly honorable mention.

Key player, Gordon Hayward went down for the next month late in Game 1. Two days later after a 128-101 Game 2 blowout, it seemed like it didn’t matter. The Celtics were ready for the task less than 48 hours later.

Championship terms have multiple stars that the team can rely on for offense when things get tight. The Celtics have three of them.

Championship teams play with confidence in the face of adversity; overcoming the Hayward injury at the outset of a playoff series without a hitch, checks that box.

Championship teams play not only tenacious defense but effective defense and their defense has become menacing for opponents to deal with.

Championship teams have reliable depth and the Celtics bench is starting to play with and emanate confidence that they can be depended on.

I for one have seen enough. I’ve seen the level jump. The Celtics are outclassing the 76ers and are making that quantum leap from hope and promise to legitimate championship contention. It’s happening right now before our eyes. Just ask Philly.