Arbella Early Edition

Mannix: ‘Zero concerns' about C's title chances despite loss to Nuggets

Mannix notes the internal development and acquisitions of Porzingis and Holiday as key difference makers.

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The Boston Celtics currently sit in a favorable position atop the Eastern Conference standings with a league-best 33-10 record. After playing some of their tougher matchups early on, Boston will end its season with the easiest remaining strength of schedule across the league.

With new additions Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday clearly making a positive impact on this C's team that lost to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals, Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix has a hard time imagining that any East team will give Boston any issues down the stretch.

"I think the Celtics as currently positioned are as good as any team right now in the Eastern Conference," Mannix said on NBC Sports Boston's Early Edition. "It's when you get to a Finals series against a team like Denver, or against a team like the LA Clippers, where they're going to be really difficult to beat in the postseason."

The Celtics had their first chance to take on the reigning champion Nuggets last week, where Denver came into the TD Garden and snapped Boston's 20-game home win streak by a score of 102-100. It was a tightly contested game with 13 lead changes, and the crowd made the environment feel like it was the NBA Finals. While the Celtics mostly played well, they had no answer for Nikola Jokic, who nearly dropped a 30-point triple-double.

"Right now, despite the loss to Denver, I have zero concerns about this team," Mannix added of the Celtics. "I am a 'sky is falling' type of guy, I pretty consistently lean towards the negative side of this conversation, but I love what Porzingis has brought to this team, I love the internal improvements some of these guys have made, I love that Jaylen Brown has not rested on his laurels after getting that big contract."

Since arriving in Boston this past offseason, Porzingis has shown that he is an All-Star caliber player who can consistently be a difference-maker for the Celtics. Despite a career-low usage rate of 23.4 percent, sharing the floor with the most talented roster he's been on throughout his career, Porzingis is still posting 19.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game on a career-high 52.5 percent shooting.

The Celtics depth, which coming into the season was seen as a weak point, has also shown consistent impact this season, specifically out of Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser. Pritchard -- who has struggled to find a role in Boston since being taken 26th overall in the 2021 NBA Draft -- has posted career-highs in almost every statistical category with 7.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists across 21.1 minutes per game this season. He is also the only Celtic to have played in every game so far this season.

Hauser has also come along well this season, filling the role of Boston's go-to perimeter threat off the bench. Also averaging career-highs in nearly every category, the third-year small forward has averaged 8.2 points -- boasting an impressive 40.4 percent conversion rate from deep -- 3.7 rebounds, and an assist across 21.9 minutes per game.

One of the biggest improvements, however, has been the emergence of Derrick White. Acquired from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, and a first-round pick at the 2022 trade deadline, White has seemingly taken full advantage of his opportunity as a starter in Boston. The 29-year-old made massive statistical jumps from last season and is now in All-Star contention with a stat line of 16.2 points, 4.9 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game.

"Like I said, I do worry about the seventh or eighth man [off the bench]," Mannix added of the first-place Celtics. "I'm 95 percent sure about this team headed into the second half of the season."

With a starting five that normally consists of Jayson Tatum, Brown, Holiday, Porzingis, and White -- and Horford fairly consistently being the sixth man -- Hauser and Pritchard tend to be the seventh and eighth men off the bench. While the Celtics seem to be okay with that nightly rotation, it wouldn't be surprising to see them throw the names of Luke Kornet, Oshae Brissett, Svi Mykhailiuk, Dalano Banton, and Lamar Stevens in trade talks to bolster the end of their bench -- which would be in line with earlier reports stating that the Celtics may look to make small deals before the deadline.

The Celtics will get another look at the Nuggets in a possible NBA Finals preview in Denver on March 7.

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