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Three way-too-early Celtics predictions for the in-season tournament

Banner 17 1/2, anyone?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There are 79 days until November 3, 2023 — the date that marks the tip-off of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. The competition will be a great opportunity for the Boston Celtics to add yet another piece of hardware, the “NBA Cup,” to their well-populated trophy cabinet.

The league’s newest product gives the early months of the season a bit more spice, with all 30 franchises competing to be crowned mid-season champions. Throughout November, teams will compete in six groups of five, playing each team in their group once.

The team in each group with the best record will move on, along with two wild-card teams to the single-elimination knockout stage. Then, the tournament will head to Las Vegas for the semi-finals (December 7) and final (December 9). All tournament games will be counted towards each team’s regular-season record, excluding the championship game.

So, what should Celtics fans expect from their team, as they look to conquer Adam Silver’s newest creation?

Here are a few predictions:

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics will win their group

Boston got some good news back on July 8. The NBA announced the groups for the tournament’s first stage, and the Celtics got a favorable draw. They’ll be battling with the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, and Toronto Raptors for a spot in the knockout stage.

Their schedule for the group stage looks like this:

  • Friday, Nov. 10: Nets at Celtics, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
  • Friday, Nov. 17: Celtics at Raptors, 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 24: Celtics at Magic, 2:30 p.m., NBA TV
  • Tuesday, Nov. 28: Bulls at Celtics, 7:30 p.m.

Of the five teams in the bunch, only two of them made the playoffs last season, the Celtics and Nets — who made the cut largely due to the contributions of the departed duo of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant earlier in the year.

Will Brooklyn make a return to the postseason this year? Probably not. Toronto and Chicago? They made the Play-In Tournament last season but didn’t make any major improvements — the Raptors even got worse. Orlando? It’s certainly possible as their young core continues to grow.

With that being said, there’s just no reason for the Celtics to get bounced in the group stage. There just isn’t.

They’re head and shoulders above the competition, with Orlando lurking two-or-three levels below. Boston had a winning percentage of 0.695 in the 2022-2023 campaign, while the other four teams combined for a 0.487 winning percentage.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics will make the fanbase sweat

Though the Celtics are clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference’s Group C, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to play like it. One constant of the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown era in Boston has been the team playing down to their competition.

It’s something that they did throughout the course of last season, against these teams in particular.

Well, except Toronto, who they absolutely bullied by taking all four regular-season meetings.

Against the rest, it wasn’t as pretty:

  • 3-1 against Brooklyn (0-1 against the Irving/Durant-less group)
  • 2-2 against Chicago
  • 1-3 against Orlando

The way that this tournament is set up, there isn’t a ton of room for error in the group stage. If the Celtics want to be at the top of their group, it means that they probably can’t lose more than once.

It wouldn’t be the most shocking thing if Boston tested that theory and dropped at least one of their matchups in November.

Who will be the team to give the Cs a wake-up call? Most likely the Magic. Orlando looked super-comfortable against Boston last year. They even took both games in a Friday-Sunday double-header at TD Garden in December.

Even in the Celtics’ lone victory the Magic still fought hard, losing by just six at home.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics
Joe Mazzulla, Boston Celtics
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Mazzulla uses In-Season Tournament as an ‘audition’ for playoff minutes

The In-Season Tournament will not only make the November-December games more interesting for NBA fans, but they’ll be more intense for the players, too — probably, as long as they decide they care. It’s yet to be seen whether or not the $500,000 in prize money for each player on the tournament’s winning team will serve as enough motivation for that.

That potential of high intensity games early in the season could be great for Joe Mazzulla. Sure, he knows what he’s got in Tatum, Brown, Derrick White, Al Horford, etc. But newcomers like Oshae Brissett, Jordan Walsh, and perhaps Dalano Banton are more of a mystery.

How will they perform when the lights are bright? Can opposing teams game plan to exploit them? Can Mazzulla trust them in big spots?

These are all questions that could be answered in the fall, at least a little bit.

Take a look at last season’s playoff rotations. Both Grant Williams and Sam Hauser saw their minutes diminish because Mazzulla wasn’t sure he could trust them. Williams eventually found his way onto the floor as the postseason went on, but Hauser never got much of a chance to prove himself. His sub-three minutes per game in the 2021-2022 run wasn’t enough to earn the favor of his coach, despite having a solid role throughout the regular season.

If there had been an In-Season Tournament last fall, maybe Mazzulla would’ve given Hauser more burn in the postseason, especially considering Boston couldn’t buy a three in the Eastern Conference Finals.

At the end of the day, fans should enjoy this new experience. Enjoy watching games that kind of matter in November.

Remember, this tournament is only meaningful if the Celtics win it. If not, it’s just simply Mickey Mouse.

Those are the rules.

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