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Checking in with the Celtics 2018 - Season Preview

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Checking in with the Celtics 2018 - Season Preview (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Boston Celtics took fans on a heck of a ride last year, advancing to within one game of winning the Eastern Conference and heading to the NBA Finals for the first time in nearly a decade. Poor shooting on their home floor kept them from being the first team to keep LeBron James out of the Finals since … the Boston Celtics in 2010.

The 2017-18 Celtics arrived earlier than expected despite losing one big-ticket free agent acquisition (Gordon Hayward) five minutes into the first game of the season and the other (Kyrie Irving) with 20 games left. Yet with neither of their mega-talent additions on the floor, Boston still made the conference finals thanks primarily to huge leaps by youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and the deceptive low-key excellence of Al Horford.

That team won 55 games and was the top seed in the East … and this latest incarnation is almost certainly going to be better. Maybe a lot better.

It all starts at the top. Kyrie Irving is back and (reportedly) healthy. If that’s true, then the Celtics have one of the best scorers in the NBA leading their attack once again. Last year’s numbers before he got hurt – 24.4 points, 5.1 assists, 3.8 rebounds – were elite, but he has a chance to improve his efficiency significantly now that he doesn’t have to constantly lead the way, which is kind of incredible when you consider that he shot nearly 50 percent from the floor and over 40 percent from three.

He can cede some of that offensive burden to Hayward, who looks poised to pick up where he left off as one of the NBA’s best. When he’s right, he’s potentially a 20/6/6 guy; this team is constructed to allow him the opportunity to meet and even exceed those numbers. Plus, he’s the kind of 6’8” 225-pounder who’s thriving in today’s league. He’ll be a great secondary option to Irving – Robin to Kyrie’s Batman. Don’t be surprised if he has an All-NBA season.

And lest we forget, there’s Al Horford. There’s something to be said for having a guy who, while maybe not top-tier in any one respect, is a solid B-plus in all of them. That’s Horford, who had his typically solid season (12.9/7.4/4.7) while playing good defense. He’s one of the best passing big men in the league as well. He’s basically the guy you can count on to always make the right decision with or without the ball in his hands.

All that, plus you have a couple of the league’s fastest rising stars.

Jayson Tatum played in just about every game last season as a fresh-faced rookie. He turned the unexpected absences of the team’s stars into an opportunity to shine, averaging 14 points and five boards per game while shooting a top-10 percentage (43.4 percent) from three. He was also clutch, both in the regular season and while he was carrying the Celtics in the playoffs. All this while he was just 19 years old; watching him grow is going to be a treat.

Jaylen Brown made major strides in his sophomore season, producing per-game offensive numbers eerily similar to those of Tatum, though his shooting percentages were worse. His defense was better, though, so it all comes out in the wash. Brown showed himself capable of being a valuable part of a championship team last season, despite being just 21. Expect him to continue to improve and to grow ever more versatile.

That’s a hell of a starting five, right? And that doesn’t even take into account guys like Marcus Smart, a tenacious defender and glue guy who the Celtics locked up long-term despite an occasional proclivity for taking terrible shots, or Aron Baynes, signed largely due to his being capable of matching up defensively with many of the league’s best big men. Oh, and Terry Rozier’s awfully good too. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better eight-deep rotation anywhere in the East.

Oh, and as an added bonus, the Celtics just happen to have one of the two or three best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens. Stevens has proven to be every bit the brilliant coach that he was believed to be when he left Butler (after back-to-back national title games) and came to Boston. His record has improved each year that he has been in the NBA; expect that streak to grow to five straight when this team blows by 55 wins with room to spare. He’s a great tactician, a great motivator and guys love playing for him – an NBA coaching trifecta you don’t often see.

There have been some seismic shifts in the Eastern Conference this offseason. LeBron has left the East for the first time in his career, moving to the Lakers. Kawhi Leonard pushed his way into a trade from the Spurs and is playing for Toronto, making the Raptors into Boston’s primary challenger for conference supremacy. The 76ers still look like a strong contender, and you can’t count out the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks. Still, it looks like this could be a big year for the Celtics.

If nothing else, they’re going to be a lot of fun to watch.

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