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Celtics outlook: Cautiously optimistic and realistic expectations

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Looking at the Celtics expectations from a semi-balanced perspective.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens likes to preach emotional conservation. Don’t get too high when things are going well. Don’t get too low when things are going poorly. In my last two articles, I laid out some best-case scenarios and some worst-case scenarios. Now it is time for the happy medium.

This is the part where I have to remind you that I’m a born optimist when it comes to sports. On the other hand, I’ve been frustrated enough times this season that I’m currently in a “prove it to me” mode at the moment. So if you are plotting me on a chart, I’m probably leaning optimistic but not as far as I normally do.

Regular Season

The final 24 games will tell us a lot about this team’s chances in the playoffs. Can they stay healthy and finish strong? Will guys accept their roles and excel in them? Will rumors and speculation continue to distract and annoy the locker room or will they put all that behind them until the summer?

As you might expect, the answer to all these questions is “maybe kinda sorta.” Perhaps the team will put the trade deadline and All Star break behind them, focus on the rest of the season, and buy in to everything Coach Stevens is selling. Hopefully the opportunity to play for a championship is enough motivation to put all the rest of the noise to the side and concentrate on that goal.

Nobody is immune to distractions though, and several guys have their future up in the air at this point. Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris are all free agents to be. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and just about every other player on the roster could have a new home by next fall. That stuff has an effect on people.

Debate all you want about “loyalty” vs. “just a business” but this is the team right here and right now. They have a job to do and a short term responsibility to each other to give this team their best.

Playoffs

Not to minimize the process too much, but everything depends on how deep this playoff run is. Make it far and nobody will remember the early season struggles. Get bounced early and critics will be quick to say “see, I told you so.” Zach Lowe likes to talk about how small this team’s margin of error is. That seems absurd given how deep the team is, but I find it hard to argue with his assessment.

Gordon Hayward has gotten back into a groove. I’m capping my expectations at 90% of his old self, but I’m kind of expecting no more than 75%. If he’s hitting 3’s at a rate that keeps defenses honest and making smart passes, then that’s enough against most teams. To reach the Finals, however, they might need every bit of that OG, Old Gordon.

Kyrie Irving is going to do what he does. He’s going to be who he is. At some point, I think we have to collectively accept that. On the court that means he’ll zig where others zag and put his own special flavor on it. Off the court...he’ll zig where others zag and put his own special flavor on it.

I actually have a lot of hope that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will both be very positive factors for the Celtics down the stretch. They’ll have their moments where their age shows, but more than enough of the good should shine through.

Terry Rozier is much more of a wildcard, but that’s kind of his role at this point. Maybe he’ll find a home as a starter somewhere next year, but right now he’s coming off the bench and (in theory) attacking 2nd units. When he’s on, he’s a game changer for good. When he’s off, well, Coach will need to know when to use that quick hook.

Above Average Al Horford will continue to grind out defensive stops, set solid picks, and get well-timed buckets. Stevens needs to manage his minutes and put him in the right spots but he’s a good bet to be on top of his game in the postseason.

I’m still not sure what to make of Marcus Smart shooting well, but I’m not going to question it as long as it is working. Besides, he’s proven for years that he’s effective even when the shots aren’t falling. Finals MVP. I’m speaking this into existence. Someday.

Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes aren’t talked about as much but both are major contributors and critical to the team’s success. They are unique match up challenges for other teams and very capable defenders.

My prediction: I feel like this team will have a long road with multiple 7 game series wins. It won’t be easy, but I think they’ll make it to the Finals by the skin of their teeth. Then they’ll lose 4 games to 2 to the Warriors. (Though I’m not ruling out a 2nd round exit either.)

Off season

I’m tired of thinking and writing about the off season, especially since it is several months away and there’s nothing that can definitively happen in the meantime. Yet there’s a new rumor or report every other day that seems to swing the public perception in one direction or the other.

Will the Celtics get Anthony Davis this summer? Umm, maybe? Boston has the assets to spend and the GM willing to spend them. But things don’t always work out. If Davis is dead set against a move to Boston, then Ainge needs to take Tatum off the table. If he can still get a deal done, even at the risk of losing Davis in a year, so be it. If not, then they can move on to other options.

I’m still not against a slow build, counting on Tatum and Brown to develop into stars. That’s less of a sure thing than trading for a ready-made star. It could be the best long term option though and in theory it could line up nicely with Irving’s prime.

I expect a full summer of rumors and breathless reporting but my hope is that we can maintain some perspective. Namely that there’s not a ton of downside to whatever happens as long as the team doesn’t panic or do something stupid (which Danny Ainge isn’t prone to).

When in doubt, do what Brad Stevens does: don’t get too high when things are going well and don’t get too low when things are going poorly.