May 27th is a date that is embedded in the back of every Celtics player’s mind. The last time the Celtics took the court, they fell just short of an Eastern Conference title, to none other than “The King of the East”, Lebron James. A truly heartbreaking loss that brought Boston’s improbable and exciting playoff run to an end.
The 2017-2018 Boston Celtics were no stranger to adversity. Six minutes into their first game, they lost their All-Star Forward in Gordon Hayward to an ankle injury. A young Celtics core led by recently acquired Kyrie Irving were put to the test. After losing the first two games of the regular season, the Celtics rattled off 16 wins in a row. They continued their stellar play even without their highest paid player, and earned the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, any thought of the Celtics getting past the Cavaliers was brought to a screeching halt when the team announced Kyrie Irving would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury, after leaving a game against the Indiana Pacers early on March 11th.
Once more this young Celtics core and coach Brad Stevens were put to the test. Guys like Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum were all forced to grow up a little earlier and play like seasoned vets in the playoffs. They did just that. They slid past the Milwaukee Bucks in 7 games, neither team losing at home. No one expected them to even put up a fight against the new young powerhouse in the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were expected to make light work of this banged-up Celtics team. This series was when people around the league started to take notice of the Boston Celtics, and how great they really are. Brad Stevens and his young squad shockingly steamrolled the Sixers, and moved on to face the King. They took the Cleveland Cavaliers to 7 games, and lost a heartbreaker at home. The mood in the locker room after the game was different than most. Instead of being down on themselves, they felt hope. A team without their two best players came within minutes of the NBA Finals. So, one could ask: What’s different this year? Why are the Celtics the favorite to come out of the East?
This team is so hungry, there are almost too many reasons.
Every team’s success starts at the top. Over the past 10 years, Danny Ainge has made absolutely outstanding moves to make this team the best that it can be. His best move so far was acquiring the basketball genius that is Brad Stevens. After the departure of Doc Rivers in 2013, Danny Ainge set out to find a replacement. Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca gave us a little insight on how that process went about: “Danny put together a list,” Pagliuca said. “The first person on the list was Brad Stevens, and the second person on the list was Brad Stevens, and the third person on the list was Brad Stevens. There wasn’t really much beyond Brad Stevens.”
Brad Stevens has a track record for maximizing every player’s potential. With almost every player at Butler, they saw their efficiency and numbers rise under Stevens, and fall after leaving him. Brad Stevens could have rolled over in the playoffs last year, and no one would have blamed him. Some teams would have almost accepted their fate and moved on to focusing on next year. But that’s not really how it works with Boston sports. Excellence and success is expected, not hoped for. So Stevens and the Celtics put their heads down, got to work and praised “next man up” mentality. Brad Stevens is the type of leader and coach every team dreams of having. His players respect him, and love playing for him.
There has been some discrepancy on who is going to be the first five for the Boston Celtics, but the expected lineup is: Irving, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Horford. Top to bottom it’s the best lineup in the East. It is filled with athletic and explosive players who can guard more than one position at all times, and this really helps in their defensive scheme which involves tons of switching. The best part about the Celtics’ starting five and team as a whole is that they LOVE to play defense. When you see a team with so much offensive talent, it’s rare to see a team that prioritizes defense as much as they do. They are all athletic and long, and teams are going to struggle to run any types of screens through their defensive scheme.
Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward & Al Horford
On a team with so much young talent, a lot falls on the veterans. Sure, watching Jayson Tatum explode in the playoffs was amazing to watch, but a team’s success revolves around experienced veterans. Irving, Hayward, and Horford (ages 26, 28, 32) are so important to this team. Kyrie Irving is probably one of the most exciting basketball players to watch. Al Horford’s impact on the game never shows up on the stat sheet, but if you take him off this team it would kill them. Gordon Hayward, coming off a season-long injury is hungry and ready to prove himself again. Hayward’s overall talent and ability to guard positions 1-5 is what makes him so important. Most people forget he was an All-Star in the West before he signed with Boston. Expect a huge year out of him.
Depth is one of the most sought after preseason goals in the NBA, and it is what sets the Boston Celtics apart from a majority of the league. The bench is loaded with players who would start for a lot of other teams. The reserves are led by Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Aron Baynes. It should be noted that these four players all started games in the 2018 playoffs. Morris has coined the squad “BWA” (bench with attitude).
The Golden State Warriors may go down as one of the best teams of all time. Over the past five years, they have completely dominated the league and made things look easy. It obviously helps having the best three shooters in the league in your starting five, but the bench goes unnoticed. Unless you’re Lebron James in the finals, no one can successfully play a full 48 minutes. The Warriors have had great talent off the bench, that competes with other teams starting fives. A lot of the Warriors success comes from how many different players they can throw at you.
The East is clearly much weaker than the West, but there are some teams who can make some noise and put a wrench in the Celtics’ plans. The Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard provide the biggest threat to the Celtics. They were the one seed last year, and arguably got better in acquiring Kawhi Leonard for franchise player Demar Derozan. If Leonard stays healthy and there are no more locker room issues, the Raptors will be very good and could knock off the Cs. The Philadelphia 76ers also provide a threat. Hopefully for Sixer fans, Markelle Fultz will have a healthy season and play like a first overall pick. If the Sixers want to take a step in the right direction and become the top team in the East, Fultz is going to have to play much better than he has thus far in his young career.
Although these two teams definitely pose a threat to the Celtics, it’s hard to say Boston isn’t the best team, top to bottom. With two all-stars coming back, young players progressing even quicker than expected, and the genius that is Brad Stevens at the helm, the sky’s the limit for this team. One thing is for sure, this team is going to be very fun to watch this year.