For the first time since Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were walking through that Celtics dressing room door on a nightly basis, the Bostonians are the odds-on favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
But as we learned 5 minutes and 15 seconds into last year’s season opener, situations can change in a Cleveland minute.
That club arose from Gordon Hayward’s injury and even the loss later in the year of Kyrie Irving to make it all the way to Game 7 of the conference finals — where it promptly kissed away an all-expenses-paid trip to the title series by tightening up and missing shot after shot (after shot).
The experience gained in that run has made the Celtics even more able to deal with the inevitable potholes in the road from here until next spring, but there are still checkpoints to hit — keys, if you will.
Here are five of them:
The virtue of patience
We’re unapologetically stealing this one from the top of last year’s list.
While the 2017-18 crew had just four returnees from a 53-win conference finalist and had to introduce themselves to one another, the current collection should be more than familiar with each other.
But the C’s still have to re-integrate Gordon Hayward and find an overall groove. Therefore, the early returns on this election may be terribly inconclusive.
Last year we said you should probably wait until St. Patrick’s Day before judging the team’s fitness for playoff advancement, but things should be well in order long before that this season.
Just don’t be too alarmed if things aren’t perfect this week.
The other end of the floor
Most of the attention gets focused on the offense — who’s doing the scoring, how well the ball is moving, how the number of shots is distributed, whether the ball is, you know, finding its way through the strings on a consistent basis.
But as Brad Stevens has mentioned on a few occasions and Al Horford always seems to throw into the conversation, defense — the willingness to play it hard and the focus to stay within the scheme — may actually override everything else we’re talking about.
The Celts will be seen as an elite team when they take the floor Tuesday and thereafter, and there may be the human nature tendency to get a little full of themselves. But grit on the defensive end will largely determine how far they go. In fact, it’s their ability to match up with Golden State’s title talent that had the Warriors more concerned that the C’s would make it out of the East last season.
Defense not only keeps the opponent’s total down — duh — it also creates opportunity baskets that do more to break a foe’s will.
The jigsaw puzzle
Stevens’ title remains “coach,” but he could just as easily be seen as a chef this year. There should be little question that the Celtics have the ingredients to challenge for every goal under the NBA sun. Now all Stevens has to do is figure out which of the ingredients in what measure and combination will make for the best dish.
It will be no small feat.
Already it seems the Celtics’ depth will exceed what fills a normal rotation. How far will Stevens go into his bench on a regular basis? Will using all the deserving players bring diminishing returns?
And, at the heart of it, who plays best together. It seems the C’s will be starting both Jayson Tatum and Hayward, but would the club be better served to have Tatum coming off the bench as a featured scorer?
Stevens must decide.
So is it soup yet, Brad?
It ain’t about you
In the words of Coach Springsteen, “Poor man want to be rich. Rich man want to be king.” The Celtics won’t have quite that issue with their young players seeking to take over the team, but it’s true that people coming into the league want to establish themselves — then be stars.
The Celts had a few guys take giant steps last season, but now, even though they have improved and can handle more, they may have to do less.
And whereas Irving and Hayward are capable of taking over a game, there will be more occasions when it is best for the overall goal to keep the rock moving.
Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen all had to sacrifice a bit of their capability when they joined together in ’07, and they were more ready to do so because each had achieved individual accolades without winning anything meaningful.
Their progeny must develop a similar mindset.
Be humble or stumble
There are a number of reasons why the Celtics looked so horrible in the preseason, but one of the things that seemed to stick in Stevens’ craw was the failure to compete to the level necessary.
The Celts this year will be better than every team in the Eastern Conference — on paper. But if they don’t play with the requisite intensity, it won’t matter.
Stevens is fond of saying that it’s hard to win a game in the NBA. He says that if you don’t come to play, bad teams will beat you and good teams will embarrass you.