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Five things that should encourage and concern Celtics entering the playoffs

Boston gave everyone a ton to love and believe in entering the playoffs, but an array of concerns kept them from emerging as prohibitive favorites in a title-or-bust year.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics rolled to one of the best point per possession offensive seasons in NBA history this year. Jayson Tatum averaged 30 points per game for the first time in team history. Jaylen Brown took steps. Their depth surpassed any rival team in the league, winning numerous games without multiple starters and pushing healthier teams in others. They won 57 games, clinched the No. 2 seed and might chart the most favorable path to a title in the league.

What’s not to love?

As Boston begins its push for Banner 18 this spring, maybe it’s the stunning result that ended last postseason after this team appeared to emerge as the best in the NBA. Maybe it’s the drought persisting since 2008. It’s more likely the slip-ups late in the year, losses to Washington, Houston, Utah and others that cost them the No. 1 seed that left an uneasy feeling behind all the evidence that this team deserves unwavering confidence in its ability to win it all. Here’s what I feel good about and what concerns me entering this year’s playoffs.

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

1. Jaylen Brown is rolling

Brown finished with a season worthy of All-NBA status. He hit 47.1% of his mid-range shots and broke opposing rim protectors with a 70.8% efficiency at the rim powered by his nearly unrivaled transition game. Joe Mazzulla shifted Brown from the point of attack to a finisher role away from the pressure Jayson Tatum receives and teams haven’t been able to solve it. A cut on his right hand slowed his momentum entering the playoffs and he favored his left at practice on Thursday and Friday. It’s something to watch as he prepares for Game 1.

2. Malcolm Brogdon’s shot-making

Brogdon hit 44.4% of his threes this season, many on pull-ups that served as a release valve for the offense when it grew stagnant. He addressed finishing concerns that lingered through the midway point of the season, finishing 54.7% inside five feet. More minutes should increase the number of three he’s able to get off, while Brogdon and Brown’s mid-range abilities allow for a change of pace late in games. He drives 11.3 times per game. Brogdon is the player this team missed during last year’s playoff run, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he turns up his intensity like Al Horford often does entering April and May.

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

3. Derrick White finding his role

White’s turnaround from an ice-cold playoff run where he’s admitted discomfort from the move to Boston mid-season impacted his play. He defended at an All-Defensive level this year, giving the Celtics a counter to the East’s dynamic guards like Trae Young, James Harden, Donovan Mitchell and Jrue Holiday. Offensively, he became the screener Robert Williams III couldn’t be due to injuries, shot 38% from three, aggressively drove and finished off the catch when teams blitzed Jayson Tatum. He turned the ball over only 1.2 times per game. White feels like the barometer for the team’s success. When he’s balling, they rarely lose.

4. Big man play and health

Robert Williams III enters the playoffs healthy, something last year’s Celtics couldn’t boast, and grew more involved into the final week of the playoffs. Boston wants the best 20-25 minutes he can provide and those shorter spurts off the bench could prove more impactful and the key to keeping the team’s ceiling-raiser available for the entirety of the playoffs. It’s difficult to imagine the Celtics not winning a championship if Williams III remains healthy. Al Horford can’t go unmentioned in allowing the Celtics to play Williams III off the bench. He had a dazzling season, committing to a floor spacing role that gave Tatum and Brown the room to score inside they had each night, Horford finishing with a 44.6% mark from three. He still guards the pick-and-roll, switches onto the perimeter and contests shots like he never left. It’ll be intriguing to watch the Celtics scheme him more aggressively after dropping him for much of the regular season.

5. Explosive offensive upside

The three-point volume, turnover management and their ability to rebound and win free throw battles gives the Celtics a mathematical edge that puts most teams at a disadvantage showing up. Mazzulla’s careful attention to the analytics, ability to implement and convey them to the team, and Boston’s unmatched shooting personnel allows this group to chase 120-130 points on many nights. That contrasts against the Celtics’ offense that fell off a cliff last year into the playoffs, scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions compared to this group’s 117.3 that only trailed the Kings. They run, move off the ball, rely on an array of ball-handlers and at their best produce multiple efforts to generate great shots. They also finished 13-19 when they shoot below the league average from three (36%), winning two games against the Raptors while they shot poorly to end the year, a sign they may not simply live or die by the three.

Of course, there are some concerns.

6. Grant Williams’ play

Grant Williams, a staple of last year’s playoff rotation and the difference in the Celtics’ Game 7 win over the Bucks, lost favor late in the season, garnering DNP-CDs for the first time since 2021 and drawing limited minutes in other spots. He played six minutes in the season finale and air-balled a driving floater at one point and sat dissatisfied with a no-call at one point while the Hawks drove in transition. A large Atlanta front court immediately presents a matchup challenge for him as he tries to regain his footing into the postseason. His competition, Blake Griffin, Mike Muscala and Sam Hauser, aren’t certain to phase him out and the Celtics have ways they can rely less on Williams if they struggle, but Williams’ defensive versatility feels necessary given possible opponents later in the playoffs. He can’t get lost like he often did late in the regular season — finishing 41.8% FG and 34.2% from three since the All-Star break.

7. Lacking forcefulness on defense

Look up and the Celtics finished No. 2 defensively. Horford finally admitted what looked apparent for much of the regular season: Boston enters the playoffs with plenty to improve on at that end.

“Even though the numbers say we finished second (in defense), I actually do believe there is a lot of room for improvement for our group,” he said. “I believe that we’ll do that. It’s a challenge for us, but we definitely want to be better.”

The two numbers that signify their regression from last year’s historic unit were defending isolations, where the Celtics ranked 23rd (0.97 PPP) compared to first last year. They also forced 12.7 turnovers per game (26th), down from 13.8 last year. Those accounted for the visual difference compared to the defensive disruptiveness that drove Boston last year. Williams III’s return should bridge some of that gap, but individual efforts need to improve.

Boston Csltics vs Toronto Raptors

8. Some lingering Joe Mazzulla questions

Mazzulla proved many doubts about him wrong through the regular season. The three-point volume approach worked, he amended his timeout usage and adapted to rotational needs, injuries and a slow defensive start to make this the best two-way team in the league. The playoffs could prove different though. His even-keeled approach, at least publicly, allowed the Celtics to shake off bad losses during the regular season. It’ll become more difficult to point out the good things Boston did in key playoff losses. Brad Stevens said nitpicking the new head coach became an easy sticking point during the year, though, and he’s right. The players will dictate the season’s outcome.

9. Slow Jayson Tatum starts

Tatum shot 46.2% from the field, 32.4% from three and attempted 5.7 shots per game in first quarters, numbers that need improvement into the postseason. While Jaylen Brown set the tone on many nights to begin games, Tatum often started slow and set an energy tone the team struggled to escape in some of their bad losses. 538’s RAPTOR considered Tatum’s minutes a slight negative on the defensive end this year — how much of that stemmed from regular season apathy and how much from many nights where he struggled beyond the arc? This team will largely go how Tatum goes this postseason, and slow starts, along with nights where he shot stunningly few times in fourth quarters like the loss at Utah need to dwindle into the playoffs.

10. The guard rotation

Mazzulla addressed Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon’s roles by balancing their minutes late in the season, largely handing the benefit of the doubt to the longest-tenured Celtic with 31 minutes per game after the All-Star break. White and Brogdon had better seasons than Smart, who dealt with injuries all year, but said he’s entering the postseason closer to 100% than he’s felt in years. All three only shared the floor for 25 minutes this year and only two can play in crunch time. While Smart expressed a willingness to sit if necessary, but it’s on Mazzulla to make those difficult decisions now.

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