The regular season was not pretty, but Boston is still in terrific position to achieve its preseason expectation.
What will it take for the Boston Celtics to emerge victorious after a season of lowering expectations? Everything they’ve got, and it’ll all need to click at the same time.
The Celtics entered the season as the team to beat in the East, having taken the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference without both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Add two All-Stars, and quick math said they should be better, right?
Not so fast. Hayward has taken the entire year to work himself back into game shape, while Irving has been great on the court, but odd off it. Their returns led to chemistry issues that were never fully resolved, which is how the Celtics somehow had an excellent record when Irving was inactive, but performed poorly within games he did play when he was not on the floor. Given that this happened in Irving’s contract year, it has fueled a conversation as to whether Boston is actually better off without their max man.
Of course, they’re not. Irving is a killer, a dog of a competitor, and a crunch-time hero. After all, he’s the guy who hit the shot that won Cleveland its only NBA championship in franchise history. Boston is hoping he can do something similar for the Celtics this season.
1. Boston is still ridiculously deep
Last season, the Celtics were short Irving, Hayward, and reserve big man Daniel Theis. This time around, Boston has everyone back except for Smart, who could miss the first two rounds with a hip injury.
The Celtics didn’t make any surprise signings or blockbuster moves at the trade deadline. Instead, they simply got healthy, betting that their full-strength selves would be enough. It very much could be.
You might not like everything Irving says, but you absolutely love everything he does when the game’s on the line. (More on that later). Hayward has closed the second half of the season incredibly strong, averaging 16 points on 58 percent shooting in his final eight games of the season. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown may have regressed amid the drama of the season, but they’re still a pair of promising young wings. Al Horford, when healthy, is still Boston’s savior.
2. This is exactly why Kyrie Irving is here
Though the Celtics got to the Conference Finals without Irving last season, they didn’t make it over the hump. They needed Kyrie Irving’s killer instinct to put the Cavaliers away.
They didn’t have it. Now they do. Irving is averaging a career-high in assists and rebounds, and flirted with the ever-so illustrious 50-40-90 efficiency club.
Most importantly, Irving is the East’s best crunch-time weapon. In the final three minutes of games with a three-point margin, Irving shot a sizzling 59 percent from the field, despite everyone knowing exactly who’s taking the shot. Widen out the clutch boundaries to within five points in the last five minutes, and the Celtics outscore opponents by 23.3 points per 100 crunch-time possessions when Irving is on the floor. The only player in the NBA with a higher net rating in the clutch is Denver’s Nikola Jokic.
Plain and simple: When the game’s on the line, Irving will do what it takes to get a bucket. If you forgot, the playoffs are where he reminds you.
3. The Celtics match up well with the rest of the East
The Celtics went 3-1 against Indiana this season, their first-round opponent. They went 1-2 against likely second-round opponent Milwaukee, but one of their losses came in a game Al Horford missed and another came by one point on the road. They were 3-1 against the 76ers this year and have historically owned them going back to last season’s playoffs. They finished 2-2 against Toronto this season, but one of the losses was during the first week of the season. There is no Eastern Conference team that has Boston’s number.
They’re an odd group, these Celtics. They don’t seem together from the outside looking in. But when they play against the best of the best, they have risen to the occasion.
The Celtics have health (mostly), stars, depth, and great coaching. If they string them all together, they have as good a chance as any team to win the East.