Celtics' Biggest Matchups for 1st Month of 2021-22 NBA Season
They split their 72 regular-season games, needed a play-in game to secure their postseason spot and lasted just five games against the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round.
Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, though. Boston should come into the 2021-22 campaign free of expectations and in position to sneak up on people. It's rare that a team with two All-Star wings can qualify as a sleeper, but you could listen to a dozen discussions on the 2022 championship race without hearing a mention of the Celtics.
This team could be more dangerous than people think, and it will get a chance to show the hoops world exactly that during these three critical contests from the 2021-22 season's first month.
Wednesday, Oct. 20: at New York Knicks
Fire up any preseason rankings piece, and you'll find the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks projected to fill the first two spots in the Eastern Conference (in either order). After that, the debates start.
The Celtics and Knicks, Boston's opening-night opponent, will be lumped in somewhere beneath them. While neither likely possesses the upside of a No. 1 seed in even their best-case scenario, either could easily crack the top four and host a first-round series.
That puts them in direct competition with one another, which adds a good deal of significance to this matchup. Head-to-head records are the first tiebreakers used in two-team ties, so it's never too early to start building up an advantage.
As for the basketball, Julius Randle is a nice litmus test to see how good Boston's big-man defense can be, while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could exploit some holes in New York's perimeter coverage. Just don't tune in for the offense here. These clubs met three times last season, and only once did a club crack triple digits (a 101-99 Celtics win).
Wednesday, Nov. 17: at Atlanta Hawks
While Tatum and Brown can score with just about anyone, Boston's roster is built to win with defense. A starting lineup likely to feature Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III—with perhaps Al Horford or Josh Richardson claiming the final spot—can only be so good on offense.
However, it should be downright ferocious on defense, so Step 1 of the Celtics getting back on track is elevating their 13th-ranked defense.
An early matchup with an explosive Hawks team should be a good barometer. Atlanta fielded the ninth-most efficient offense last season, and that was while navigating around injuries to key contributors like De'Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari.
The offensive excellence is due in large part to Trae Young, whose deep range and ability to create shots off the dribble give him a gravitational pull on defenders. If the Celtics want to win this game and knock off an Eastern Conference finalist, they need to keep Young under control without losing track of the many shooters around him.
Friday, Nov. 19: vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Given the history of this rivalry, a Celtics-Lakers collision is compelling even when the teams aren't.
It's at its best, though, when both bring knockout power inside the ring.
Boston might be moving up a weight class for this matchup, at least on paper. While L.A. wasn't much better last season, the Lakers were saddled by injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They've had time to heal those players and dramatically reshape the supporting cast around them, adding Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Kendrick Nunn among others.
This is the best team the Celtics face in the first month. It just might prove to be the toughest opponent Boston has all season. If the Celtics can find a way to stop the Lakers here, that could do wonders for their confidence and get them back into the national conversation.
Statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.