Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka saw a 109-81 victory over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday as validation.
"Our proof is in our record in the second half of the season," Udoka said of his team after it punched its ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals. "We are not a fluke."
Because of how they're performing in the playoffs, it's easy to forget how the Celtics' season was being framed a few months ago.
Boston was sitting at .500 (25-25) as late as Jan. 28. In November, Marcus Smart said the team's best players, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, "don't want to pass the ball," which was making the offense too predictable. Once again, the idea of trading Tatum or Brown in order to shake things up was at least being thrown around by those outside of the team.
Rather than unraveling, however, the Celtics not only righted the ship but began looking like the NBA's best team. After slipping back to .500 in late January, they reeled off a nine-game winning streak, which ended right before the All-Star break.
Following the All-Star break, Boston had the league's top net rating (12.7), per NBA.com. In addition, the gap between Udoka's squad and the second-place Memphis Grizzlies (5.1 points per 100 possessions) was the same as the gap between Memphis and Los Angeles Clippers in 17th.
Once the first round concluded, nobody was second-guessing the Celtics any longer. It wasn't simply that they beat the Brooklyn Nets but the nature of their sweep. They made Kevin Durant look mortal and used their depth to outlast a star-laden opponent.
The Bucks were without the services of Khris Middleton, but that shouldn't take anything away from how Boston continued to perform on defense.
The Heat will present another difficult challenge in the next round. Few franchises wring more out of their players than Miami, with Max Strus and Gabe Vincent the two newest success stories this offseason.
Write off the Heat at your own peril, but the Celtics should arguably be considered the favorites given the standard they're currently setting on the court.