Before we begin, let’s discuss today’s question under the assumption that Gordon Hayward is not coming back. We’ll suspend that fantasy until March ends. For now, assuming that this is the group the Celtics will pass into the playoffs, what will it take for Boston to circumvent the Raptors and Cavaliers and reach the Finals?
Anything goes, whether it be a major injury elsewhere (though we’re not wishing that on anyone), a Jayson Tatum explosion that leads him to rookie of the year, a Kyrie Irving MVP push over the last 27 games, or a favorable first-round opponent. As long as it leads to Boston hosting an NBA Finals game in June, leave it in the comments below. Our team weighed in as part of our continuing All-Star break roundtables.
Bill Sy — Be flexible.
Most teams have adjusted to the modern game and caught up with the Warriors. They may not be as offensively talented, but GMs have started to load up on switchy wings that can play on both sides of the ball as basketball has become positionless. Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens have been on the forefront of this movement, and they’re poised to challenge Golden State.
However, to get through the Eastern Conference, they’re going to have to figure out ways to beat teams that have taken a more traditional approach to team building. They could face Joel Embiid and the Sixers, who may not be as quick as other contenders but would definitely pose a size problem for a Celtics team that prefers to play small. There are the Raptors, who dramatically change gears from their starters to their bench. And of course, there’s LeBron and a rejuvenated Cavaliers team that still poses a significant problem whenever James has the ball. Each potential playoff series presents a different matchup problem.
Boston will look considerably different than the team that limped to the All-Star break losing 4 of 5. Getting Marcus Smart back adds another defender that can guard LBJ, Kyle Lowry, and Ben Simmons. Greg Monroe will have another week under his belt and will provide a bench and inside scoring punch that the team really hasn’t had in the last five years.
Matt Chin — Someone other than Kyrie Irving needs to emerge as a reliable 20+ points per game offensive weapon.
In the playoff format, teams have two weeks to figure out the full playbook of schemes and tendencies. By the Eastern Conference Finals, the smartest defenders are able to read and react before the initial screen or entry pass. To make it to the Finals, you need multiple dynamic off-the-dribble playmakers capable of creating shots for themselves and for teammates. Those players can turn empty possessions into gold and improvise when necessary.
Jaylen Brown has made an impressive eight-point jump in scoring average from his rookie to sophomore season. Tatum’s shooting metrics have fallen off over the past two months—an expected regression to the mean given his age and minutes load. Are they capable of carrying the scoring load at a rate that maintains pace with the Cavaliers’ or Raptors’ offenses? Sure, it’s plausible, but unlikely. They have immense upside, but betting that they reach championship-level readiness in the infancy of their careers is not advisable.
Even if Hayward is able to return this spring, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll return to All-NBA-caliber production until 2019. After a significant injury, re-learning muscle memory and building up wind carries an indefinite timeline. Al Horford, who is best used as a facilitator, screener, and floor spacer, is being asked to generate his own looks in isolation this season. After posting averages of 15.1 PPG and 6.6 RPG on 58 percent shooting over 18 playoff games last year, he’ll have to be even better if Boston wants to get over the LeBron James hurdle.
Keith P. Smith — LeBron gets injured or decides to retire.
Beyond that, the Celtics face an uphill battle.
The reality is that this team is good, but maybe not quite there yet. Hayward got hurt. Several rookies and/or players under 25 are playing key rotation minutes. The team turned over all but four players from the previous season. If we’re being honest, making a run to the Eastern Conference Finals is a pretty great accomplishment this year.
In the spirit of the question asked, aside from the snarky LeBron James response above, the Celtics need Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown to step up as a consistent 20 PPG presence alongside Kyrie Irving. Both have shown the ability to get there on occasion, but if Boston is to get to the NBA Finals, they need it nightly. Irving can’t carry the scoring load himself, and in the playoffs, as we all saw with Isaiah Thomas, teams can key on one scorer and make life difficult. If Tatum or Brown can step forward, it will go a long way towards the Celtics being a Finals team.
Alex Kungu — Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum becoming lethal and consistent two-way players.
It’s not fair to expect this off them, and it’s unlikely they will perform at a level high enough to carry us to the Finals, but if both players were say 40% shooters on 5-7 attempts per game, averaged 15-20 PPG and brought a lights-out mentally defensively, it would take this team to another level. Teams would hesitate when deciding how to defend the Irving-Horford PnR, and it would open the door for a chance to be a top-10 offensive team with an already stingy defense.
Bobby Manning — Kyrie Irving asserts himself as one of the five best players in the sport
As reported earlier this season, Irving is still in the process of his long recovery from his broken knee that he suffered in the 2015 NBA Finals that will require eventual minor surgery. While it may not affect him on a day-to-day basis, a new concerted effort at managing player usage and Irving’s history of injuries (including nagging ailments this season) has prevented Irving from being a 40 minute per game player this season.
That’s smart thinking by Brad Stevens and the Celtics’ training staff, but come playoff time that needs to change.
The same way James averages 37 minutes for the Cavs, Irving must assume that workload in the playoffs for Boston to thrive and win. Unlike the teams of recent years under Brad Stevens that utilized depth into the postseason, this group looks poised to consolidate the rotation. That means Irving, a career 34 minute per game player, must step up to a new level.
This is why Irving came to Boston—unlimited opportunity in these playoffs will allow him to make his mark in the same breath as LeBron James. In the regular season, Irving’s established a benchmark of capable production and assisted in integrating the likes of Tatum, but come April the pressure lies on him for any chance at the Finals.
With Boston, Irving has unloaded 18.5 shots per game. In each of his last two playoff runs with the Cavaliers, he took over 19. That number may need to be even higher with the Cs.
That’s the challenge for Boston and Irving, one he set out here to take: becoming the centerpiece. Can he get his own shots at the highest rate while keeping others involved? That’s the biggest question for this team’s Finals potential.