If you’ve been watching the Celtics this season, you probably have no idea what to feel about them heading into the postseason. Between flashes of brilliance, this team has gone through spells where they wouldn’t compete with the worst of the league.
They seemingly traded off winning and losing streaks as well as good wins and bad losses. After eight straight victories in December, they followed up by losing three in a row, including to the Phoenix Suns (19-63) in Boston.
The famous west-coast road trip, where everyone thought the team had “figured it out,” started off with a victory against the Warriors. Stevens’ group proceeded to win three of four out there before dropping four consecutive games, including losses to the Sixers, Bobcats, and Spurs.
Now, the general population of Celtics fans can be divided into two schools of thought.
The first: Boston is fine, and will play their best basketball in the postseason and run through the East like they were expected to.
The second: Boston isn’t as good as we thought they were, and are set up for a second round exit against the Bucks.
All those words can basically be summed up like this- the Celtics struggled with consistency all season. Can they break through in the playoffs and play good basketball for the rest of the season? It all depends on a few things.
This team is NOT better without Kyrie Irving. I don’t care what they did last year. Kyrie is your best player.
Take away the best player, and the team does not get better.
It’s simple logic.
Kyrie, however, does need to get better.
In wins this year, he averages just under 25.0 points with a +13.9 plus/minus rating. That number goes down to -3.9 in losses, and it’s been terrible as of late. In February and March, Irving played 20 games and had a 0.4 +/-.
He left LeBron to have his own team. Now, the East is wide open and he has the opportunity to take the team over. It’s his time to do what he came to Boston to do. That’s to win. When he is clicking within Stevens’ offensive system, the Celtics are one of the toughest teams to beat in the entire league.
With Marcus Smart possibly sidelined for the first two series, the need for Kyrie to play like the all-star he is has amplified. Which brings me to my next x-factor for Boston’s postseason run.
Smart has been one of the most consistent players for the C’s this season, playing 80 of their 82 games.
Needless to say, the Celtics are very used to Marcus Smart being out there for them. He’s an easy fan favorite- a gritty defender, scrapper-like player whose effort screams much louder than any number on his stat sheet. Smart being hurt for the first two series is going to change the makeup of the team a lot.
He is arguably their best perimeter defender, and would be huge in a possible second-round matchup against the Bucks, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league.
His absence would likely lead to more time from Terry Rozier, which could be both could and bad for the Celtics. In other words, do they get regular season Rozier, or the Scary Terry that we all saw in last year’s postseason run.
It’s Not Last Year
No matter what, this is a very different Celtics team from last year. The kids are improved and have big minutes under their belts.
One of the guys that’s been an attention-grabber for me, at least late in the season, has been Gordon Hayward.
I know it’s somewhat recent memory, but he blew up his ankle last year and wasn’t available for the playoffs. In the month of April alone, he’s looked much more comfortable on the floor, showing flashes of the max-contract player Ainge bought a few years ago. Through the four games this month, Hayward has averaged over 18 points an outing, generally exploding from what he was for the rest of the season.
The numbers are on a steady incline- his averages per month have gone up each month, but never by more than a full point. Between March and April, Hayward has jumped from 11.8 points an outing to 18.1. With him available the Celtics have more depth offensively for when teams lock up on Kyrie or Tatum.
Let’s not forget the lack of pressure on last year’s team.
No one expected the injury-ridden Celtics to come out of the East over LeBron and the Cavs. No one in the Celtics organization thought they would take Cleveland to a Game 7.
Now, the pressure is on. Kyrie’s exit is looming, trade talks have been circling the locker room for months, and (it kills me to write this) it could be the last run this Boston roster has.
The team could look completely different come next season.
A run in the playoffs could convince Kyrie to stay and even draw other stars to Boston. With the East wide open, now is the time for Boston to play with some urgency.
They match up well with some of the best teams out West, and a championship isn’t out of their sights. Boston has to win 12 games to reach the NBA Finals, same as every other team.
They open up play against the Pacers, and should they win that match up, they look at a series with the top-seeded Bucks. After that, the Celtics would most likely take on a team like Toronto, however- the East is wide open.
Is this the year?
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