By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
With the Bruins falling flat on their faces in Game 1, fans are curious, maybe a little nervous, about what’s in store for the city’s other winter sports team as playoff season begins anew in Boston.
Initial expectations were for a deep run. Circumstances, such as a lack of cohesion and apparent infighting, led to a mediocre regular season record and tempered them.
But the C’s have also stumbled into what some view as the easiest pathway to the Eastern Conference Finals. Of course, “easy” is relative, because we know even if the Celtics control their own destiny, they’ll still make the ride as bumpy as possible. What else can we expect from a team that has played in three seven-game series over the past two springs?
Furthermore, the Pacers are no pushovers, and the Bucks (the presumptive second round opponent) had the best record in the league. On the eve of the first round, let’s examine some concerns.
1. The Loss of Marcus Smart
My Sports Hub contemporaries didn’t exactly whoop and holler about Smart’s extension last summer. At best, it was viewed as a way to retain a rotation piece at a salary figure that a future trade partner (read: New Orleans) might find appealing. At worse, it was denounced as a waste of money.
To his credit, Smart responded with the most efficient season of his career, setting career highs in field goal percentage (42.2 percent), three-point percentage (36.4 percent) and steals (1.8 per game) despite a reduced workload. He also chopped down on his turnovers.
While Smart’s offensive game rose from barely sustainable to something more positive, his defense and competitive energy remained his calling cards. And that’s why his loss for at least a month to a torn oblique is particularly costly to this team. Boston’s former defensive identity has been reduced to rubble at times this season, with Smart seemingly the last bastion of coherent perimeter pursuit. While Indy doesn’t have Victor Oladipo for this series, we’ve seen lesser units shred the Celtics. Smart’s return can’t come fast enough.
2. Who Steps Up?
Here’s where it gets interesting: Who replaces Smart in the starting five? The initial approach this season was to start the most talented group of players, with Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown beginning the year in that role. That proved to be a catastrophe not only in the expected ways - like on the boards - but also resulting in a stalled offense and the erosion of Brad Stevens’ defensive system. Stevens responded by installing Smart and Marcus Morris in the starting five, where they remained for the bulk of the campaign.
Since their respective demotions, both Hayward and Brown have turned things around. Brown was first, emerging from a stint as one of the worst three-point shooters in the NBA (27 percent on 3.7 attempts per game through New Year’s Eve) to a second half where, in a near-mirror image of last season, he shot just shy of 40 percent from deep. With defenders respecting Brown’s long-range acumen, it opened up opportunities to drive to the basket, where the third-year swingman thrived.
Hayward’s emergence has been more recent, as he failed to play with any consistency until his return from a concussion three weeks ago. Since then, he submitted an eight-game sample where he contributed 16.4 points on 59% shooting, six rebounds and three assists, attempting 10.3 field goals and 4.1 free throws per game. While the only number that really jumps off the page is shooting percentage, the fact that Hayward is taking and making good shots and getting himself to the line is a departure from the wallflower we’ve observed for most of the season. His three-point shot isn’t quite there, so his aggressiveness is partly due to necessity.
Each offers a different look as a member of the starting lineup. It will be interesting to see how Stevens adds to that mix while attempting to maintain firepower off the bench.
3. What is the impact of Brad Stevens?
A few years ago, it became apparent that Stevens was constructing a case as one of the top tacticians in the league. Last season, despite missing out on the Coach of the Year (which comically went to a scandalized Dwayne Casey), Stevens had an argument as the very best. But Stevens’ first effort at the head of a front runner resulted in his most uninspired performance at the helm. Perhaps Irving’s presence as self-appointed leader loosened his grip on things - but Irving was healthy for 60 games last year and there didn’t seem to be any issues involving player, coach, and team performance.
Stevens’ reputation suffered a blemish, while Nate McMillan, with 15 seasons of humble returns and a 17-26 overall playoff record, gets props for piloting the Pacers to 48 wins without their star. But all of that is just noise when it comes to a seven-game series.
With Smart out, Stevens’ rotation decisions become more important than ever. Will his whiteboard antics win them a game? Maybe, but Stevens’ crucial role is to put a talented group in position to play their best basketball. If this is what Danny Ainge saw as a Finals participant, it’s on the coach to deliver.
4. Are the Pacers a problem?
Most of the talk headed into the first round is about whether or not the Celtics can avoid beating themselves - if they’ve finally resolved all of the things that ailed them over the course of 82 games and can “flip the switch,” if you will. But Indiana won just one fewer game than Boston, despite losing the superstar heir to Paul George - and a real thorn in the Green’s side - in Oladipo.
Break out your Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man meme: The Pacers are basically the Celtics of last year.
Veteran Bogdan Bogdanovic has led the charge in Oladipo’s absence, pouring in 21.7 points per game on 50 percent shooting (41 percent from three). While not a household name, those numbers would play anywhere, and without Smart, the Celtics either need to scheme for his exploits or find a defender to lock him down.
Boston’s recent transition to a “big” starting lineup with Aron Baynes has paid dividends, and it should be helpful against an Indiana lineup with multiple trees including Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. The Celtics don’t usually fare well when they lose the rebounding battle, and Indiana’s bigs secure 16.5 per game, with Thaddeus Young providing size and versatility as well.
Al Horford will have his hands full on both ends. Meaningful minutes from Morris (and perhaps Daniel Theis) would go a long way to neutralize those factors. The Pacers are big, methodical, and tough to score on. Firing up jumpers and hoping for a hot streak isn't going to get the job done.
Boston went 2-0 against Indiana after the Oladipo injury, but this series isn’t a gimme. Despite sometimes looking like the Fratello-era Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers have a group of veterans that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
5. Can the Celtics get out of their own way?
We’ve been waiting since October to figure this one out. The thinking is that the stellar play of Irving (who contributed career highs in multiple categories this season), steady leadership of Horford, and an assortment of supporting weapons playing reasonably well can get the job done.
But a first round win over Indiana isn’t anyone’s idea of a successful campaign. They’ll need more than that, including a definitive third banana, consistent defensive effort, and a rotation that manages to avoid massive swings of momentum. Boston has been searching for these things all year.
Is Hayward the guy? Is Jayson Tatum even healthy enough to be that guy? Could Brown capably contribute to the starting lineup? Does last year's postseason hero, Terry Rozier, cash in on another opportunity due to a backcourt injury?
The playoffs begin with far more questions than answers. But this is what we’ve been sold - that the Celtics have been waiting for this moment. Put aside the regular season. Put aside the uncertainty of summer. Just. Play. Ball.
As frustrating as the last six months have been, the Celtics still have a chance to win over the hearts of millions.
Or, like the Bruins, to fall flat on their faces.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.