Why Stephen A. Smith is still picking Celtics to win Eastern Conference

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The Boston Celtics haven't played like an elite NBA team on a consistent basis, but Stephen A. Smith hasn't seen anything too concerning to back off his pre-season prediction that the C's would win the Eastern Conference this season.

Smith, ahead of the Celtics' Christmas Day matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden, explained on Tuesday's episode of "First Take" on ESPN why he's not giving up on Boston's chances of claiming the East crown

“I’m not giving up on the Celtics,” Smith said. “I think that a big problem for the Celtics was when Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge worked diligently to reingratiate Gordon Hayward into the mix. He was at a 25-minute restriction initially and now he’s about a little over 26 minutes (per game). I like Gordon Hayward a lot, but that was a real nasty injury. It’s going to take him a couple of years to fully, fully recover from it. But I think trying to get him back into the mix early on cost them because it compromised Jaylen Brown, it compromised Jayson Tatum.

"And then all of a sudden when they go on this little winning streak, what transpired? Marcus Smart was inserted into the starting lineup. Marcus Smart is just a rough rider, a defender, great at drawing offensive fouls as well. He’s a guy who doesn’t need the ball to be effective. I think that has bode well for them. They go through a little up and down here and there, but for the most part they’ve been better with him in the starting lineup. I am not giving up on the Boston Celtics. I still believe in these boys.”

The Celtics struggled out of the gate and had a 10-10 record through 20 games, but they've now won nine of their last 12 games, including an 8-game win streak over that span. The decision to insert Smart and Morris into the starting lineup, a chance Smith noted, played a huge part in that win streak. 

The Christmas Day matchup against the 76ers is an important one, and not just because of the Celtics-Sixers rivalry that was renewed with last season's playoff series. This is the first meeting between these teams since the 76ers traded for star forward Jimmy Butler -- the player Philly is hoping can help end its struggles against Boston.

Boston, despite its issues through the first quarter of the campaign, still sits just 4.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors for first place in the conference. An impressive win over the 76ers in front of a national TV audience on Christmas would send a strong message to the rest of the conference that the Celtics remain the team to beat in the East.

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