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Boston Celtics: Are They Still the Favorites in the East Heading into December?

Zachary StanleyCorrespondent IOctober 7, 2016

Boston Celtics: Are They Still the Favorites in the East Heading into December?

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    Well, it's just over a month into the season, and we have already been privy to some rather significant surprises.

    Several analysts claimed that the Heat would not lose back-to-back games all season long, and they have already had a three-game losing streak, including a blowout loss to the Pacers, of all teams.

    The Heat have looked as befuddled as their fans, and a sense of urgency seems to have already overtaken South Beach.

    The Spurs, proclaimed by many to be aging toward irrelevance, are putting naysayers to rest, boasting the league's best record.

    The Hornets aren't far behind and have secured the award for most pleasant surprise thus far. Solid managerial decisions have created a unique puzzle in New Orleans, and although it may not last, it's hard to argue with their résumé at this point.

    Causing no raising of eyebrows is the play of the Celtics and Lakers out of the gate.

    The Lakers are undoubtedly the team to beat in the West, but should the Celtics have the same respect flowing in their direction in the East? Absolutely.

    The obvious holes in Miami's scheme are far from the top of the list for why Boston is cementing itself as the team to beat.

Size for the Prize

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    It's unavoidable. The Heat are small.

    Even the recent acquisition of journeyman Erick Dampier can't save the Heat from its greatest weakness. The reality is that Juwan Howard, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem (out indefinitely) and Dampier don't come close to making up a squad of big men that can defend the likes of Dwight Howard, let alone win a championship.

    Although not as desperately, the Celtics needed more of an inside presence with Kendrick Perkins out until February. They got it.

    Shaquille O'Neal has seemingly been reignited by the Celtics' thirst for a championship. The Celtics weren't expecting too much from Shaq, but his 12 points and seven rebounds over only about 23 minutes per game have come as a fantastic bonus to the space Shaq takes up.

    Jermaine O'Neal has been hobbled by injuries, which is no great surprise given his history. What has been a surprise to some is the play of Turkish rookie Semih Erden. Erden has done an effective job filling the injury gaps, and his 7'1" frame backs up a more physical but shorter Glen Davis.

    The Celtics have already showed the Heat it isn't easy to get to the hoop on their defense. Once Perkins returns, Boston's interior will be stronger than ever.

What's the Point?

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    Rajon Rondo was finally given his truly deserved recognition during the 2009-2010 season. The young PG has touted himself as the best in the league, and from a positional standpoint it is hard to argue. Rondo is playing even better and has the most assists in the league—by almost four.

    The Heat are discovering how difficult it is to win without a solid point guard. Analysts, fans and the Heat players themselves are making their cases for why the pieces just haven't fit together yet. Although the size issue will become a bigger problem come playoff time, the Heat will go nowhere without chemistry.

    Blame is being pushed on coach Erik Spoelstra, as well as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James' chemistry, but the key to the Heat's potential success isn't having James or Wade run the point while Carlos Arroyo stands to the side as a mediocre jump shooter.

    Jameer Nelson is an effective point guard with a sharp shot but struggles with inconsistencies and has never had the ability to play a great deal of minutes.

    We have heard the point guard being called the quarterback of the NBA offense, and nobody runs an offense with the fluidity that Rondo does.

All for One

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    It is the fourth year since the culmination of the big three, which has now turned into a big four of sorts.

    Not only is Boston's veteran trio healthier than they have been in two years, their chemistry has never been higher. The Celtics are at the height of their cohesion, and it flows out to the bench.

    This same ball movement and sense of location by the Celtics players can be seen in the Spurs and Lakers. The Spurs look reignited this year with their same trusty players still on the roster. The Lakers have developed their core chemistry ever since the arrival of Pau Gasol and have utilized him to execute a fantastic inside-out game.

    Another Heat flaw.

    Critics said that the Celtics' big three would not develop the chemistry necessary to win a championship in their first year, and they were right to say so. The Celtics' blend of positions and roles were blended together in perfect timing in the trio's career.

    LeBron and Wade seem to be getting along quite well, but getting along on the court is a different story. Their games have yet to mesh in any particular way, and both players are finding themselves in a significant number of isolation situations as the shot clock goes down. Neither is used to having to “find his place” on the court.

Intensity

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    In previous seasons, like the Spurs of the early 2000s, the Celtics have looked somewhat stagnant in terms of their on-court passion, but they have always showed up in the playoffs.

    This year is different.

    Perhaps it was sitting by while a new trio suddenly became addressed “the big three.” Perhaps the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal to an aging squad signaled the possibility that this might be the last chance.

    Whatever it is, the Celtics already have the thirst, and it seems it is here to stay. It certainly brings greater excitement to each game.

    There are few players whose pure passion allows them not only take over games, but also fuel their team as a motivating tool, driving their teammates through the toughest of times. Kevin Garnett has it. Kobe Bryant has it. Does LeBron James? Dwight Howard?

    Does this passion have something to do with these players' teams not being able to get over the top? One thing is certain: When a player is willing to give up every ounce of energy, not willing to succumb, players around them believe. If they fail, the losses itch at them, not for weeks, but years. Even if they are so fortunate to win down the road, they struggle to forget that loss.

    These are the players whose teammates follow no matter the adversity. These are the winners.

The Forgotten Challenger

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    Amidst all the focus on the Heat and their recent stumbling, one team has been neglected. The Chicago Bulls have all the dimensions of a rounded-out team that, if pieced together properly, could give the Celtics and any other team problems.

    I saved discussing the Bulls until this point because I wanted to spend some significant time placing emphasis on their legitimacy.

    The Heat, with all their talent, are missing vital pieces of a championship puzzle. If they don't find the pieces soon, they will likely not be a concern for the Celtics, as the Celtics have demonstrated in their first two meetings.

    The Magic haven't been able to get over the hump with relatively the same core. Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis are not the players they were on the Raptors and Sonics, respectively, and still won't be able to help get Dwight Howard over the top.

    The Bulls have it all—one of the league's best point guards, a stack of capable small and power forwards and a rising center. They have the passion (albeit annoying) that fuels a team in the form of Joakim Noah. They can rebound with the best of them and have received better play from Luol Deng thus far.

    As the Bulls have quietly flown under the radar, so has the return of one of the top four acquisitions of the summer, Carlos Boozer.

    While the Heat concocted an unorthodox group of superstars, the Bulls got just what they needed. Boozer adds a new dimension of scoring to the Bulls offense, putting less pressure on Derrick Rose, while adding rebounding.

    It may, in fact, not be the Heat or the Magic competing with the Celtics for the East, but a young team from Chicago hitting its prime at just the right time.

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