By: Ethan Zakarin
After losing Gordon Hayward on opening night and Kyrie Irving right before the playoffs, expectations for the 2017-2018 Boston Celtics playoff run were certainly tempered.
With so many young players and such a bright future, the goal for the C’s was to improve and gain valuable playoff experience so that when they returned to full strength, all of the pieces were ready to help carry the team back to the Finals.
Instead, breakout performances by Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum’s breakneck speed maturation process carried the green and white heartbreakingly just one game from matching up with the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.
With the return of arguably their two best players to the lineup, the 2018-2019 C’s seem on a fastrack to the Bay Area in early June, especially with LeBron James taking his talents out of the Eastern Conference. Still, the Celtics path to their first finals since 2010 is far from inevitable. Here are three key hurdles Boston will have to overcome to (most likely) battle Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant for the Larry O’Brien Trophy:
It’s one thing to be able to defeat Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but the Celtics couldn’t stop a Cleveland team that ended up quietly swept by Golden State without Hayward and Irving. To put it bluntly, if this team is going to have a chance to win it all, they need better luck with health.
Hayward’s injury, despite its gruesomeness, has a good rate of the player being able to return to the court without worry. He may shake off some cobwebs in the early part of the season, but bones heal much better than joints or ligaments, and Hayward should be fine once he gets the last part of his explosiveness and rhythm back.
Celtics faithful may be holding their breath a bit with Irving. He has had knee problems throughout his career, and while his surgery to remove infected screws in his knee seems to have gone well, the threat of reinjury definitely looms. To match up with Golden State, (or even Toronto or Philadelphia prior) Boston will need Kyrie Irving with the ball in his hands.
2. Eastern Conference Foes
Looking at how Boston handled Philadelphia in the conference semifinals without Hayward and Irving last year, you might think that the C’s have the Eastern Conference locked up and are ready to just zoom ahead to the Finals. You’d be mistaken at best.
Looking at a team like the 76ers, so many of their key contributors are emerging young players, and a team with that makeup could take a massive leap in a hurry. With another full offseason behind Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, look for those two to continue to raise the level of play for the 76ers.
Whispers of Ben Simmons improvement shooting the three should be enough in itself to take Philly more seriously. Markelle Fultz also seems to have found his jumpshot, adding a crucial piece that would open up the floor even more for a transition wizard like Simmons.
Things have also changed north of the border, with Toronto adding Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It remains to be seen how the two newcomers from San Antonio mesh with Kyle Lowry, but there’s definitely a formidable opponent the Celtics need to take even more seriously now in Toronto. While the C’s certainly are Eastern Conference royalty, their claim to the crown will be hotly contested come playoff time.
- Keeping everybody happy
On a basketball team, is it possible to have too much of a good thing? When dealing with personalities of professional basketball players who all believe they should be on the court as much as possible, the answer could be “maybe.”
Brad Stevens said this offseason that he needs to try to find as many minutes as possible for Terry Rozier after his impressive performance in last year’s playoffs, which could be a challenge as Irving returns to the court. Stevens also noted the competitive nature of more than just Rozier this offseason.
“All 15 guys on every team want to play all 48 minutes,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston this summer, something that Celtics fans should certainly keep an eye on. Despite the new contract, there will be less minutes for Marcus Smart, and likely less for Jaylen Brown too, even though he’ll still start. A mid-season trade isn’t out of the question for Boston either, but nevertheless it will be very interesting to see how easy it is to keep everyone happy with two players returning to the floor that will eat up minutes.
The C’s have young talent, veteran leadership, and won’t have to deal with the greatest basketball player of all time on their path to the Finals, but don’t count your chickens yet Celtics fans. A trip to their first Finals in eight years is far from guaranteed, especially with the likes of Ben Simmons and Kawhi Leonard potentially standing in the way.