SportsPulse: Who said the NBA playoffs was predictable? Day one was anything but and USA TODAY’s Martin Rogers breaks it all down.
The Boston Celtics have turned the corner so many times this season they’ve walked around the block over and over again.
What the Celtics deliver in the playoffs remains a guess. It could be a first-round exit against Indiana. It could be an NBA finalist. The fourth-seeded Celtics (49-33) showed this season that both scenarios are plausible.
There’s the team that went 14-4 just after the new year, and there’s the team that went 8-11 in late February through late March.
There are wins over Golden State, Philadelphia and Toronto and losses to Chicago, Phoenix and New York. There have been awkward team moments (Kyrie Irving publicly calling out his younger teammates) and special team bonding moments (a long coast-to-coast flight filled with card games and laughter).
“It takes time to come together as a team and seeing how good you can be,” coach Brad Stevens told reporters this week. “We’ve had our moments. I’m not sure we’ve peaked, which I guess is a good thing. But we’re going to have to play awfully well and awfully hard, awfully smart, and awfully together if we’re going to have a chance to win any game, let alone any series.”
Here’s the thing, the Celtics know how to play well, hard, smart and together. They’ve done it together, they’ve done it when they’ve been on other teams and done it when players are out with injury.
Irving is a champion. Al Horford has played in the conference finals multiple times. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown played in the conference finals last season with Irving.
With no LeBron James in anyone’s way in the East, the conference is as wide open as it gets. Five teams – Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana and Boston – are capable of playing in the conference finals, and the Celtics are the rare four seed that could reach the finals and it wouldn’t be a surprise.
“The playoffs are a different animal and I think it’s like a fresh start, a reset button, and we’re excited about it,” Celtics president Danny Ainge told reporters.
And while Gordon Hayward’s continued progress is important, Marcus Smart’s absence is problematic, and questions remain about their willingness to play as a team throughout the playoffs, Irving is the key to Boston’s success.
Column continues below video:
SportsPulse: Jeff Zillgitt says while the Eastern Conference isn’t totally wide open, at least four teams are very serious contenders.
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In the 37 victories the Celtics had with Irving on the court, he averaged 24.3 points, 7.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and shot 51.1 percent from the field and 44.2 percent on three-pointers. He is one of the game’s best shot-makers inside the three-point line and outside.
He can break down defenses with his dribble, quickness and guile. When games get tense during the playoffs, Boston needs that Irving, the one who can score and pass, ensuring he gets his and teammates get theirs.
“In Kyrie’s two years here, he’s mostly been that guy, and I’m confident that he will be,” Ainge said. “He knows what’s at stake and the playoffs are stressful and there’s ups and downs. When things don’t go great, sticking together as a team and having that resolve to give it a third, fourth, and fifth maximum effort try is important.
“I feel like we’ve lacked that a little bit this year, and I feel like our team has had that in the past in Brad’s time here. So I feel like we have it in us.”
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Irving has struggled at times this season being the leader he wants to be, but he is the one who must lead in action, words and play in the postseason.
“I’m just ready to get started,” Irving told reporters this week. “It’s been a long time trying to get back to this point. I just have a genuine love for the game and just want to be back to this point, playing at the highest level. Stats go out the window, everything else in terms of what has happened and transpired throughout the regular season goes out the window.”
If the Celtics get the very best Irving, it’s possible they can be the team everyone thought they could be this season.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt