Celtics

Blakely: Hayward's return is the Celtics' biggest X-factor

Blakely: Hayward's return is the Celtics' biggest X-factor

BOSTON -- There's no way you can look at the Boston Celtics and not be impressed with their depth.

We're not talking about a team with a solid starting five and some nice filler pieces.

Boston essentially has two different starting five-caliber lineups it can utilize on a nightly basis.

But for every team with legit title aspirations like the Celtics, there's usually one or two players whose impact will be a major factor in the team's success.

Boston has plenty of candidates to fall under that category, but none stand out more than Gordon Hayward.

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An All-Star in his last season with the Utah Jazz, Hayward suffered a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury in just five minutes into his first year with the Celtics. How he re-integrates his game with his young, battle-tested teammates will be a major factor in Boston's quest to bring Banner 18 to Boston at the end of the season.

"I'm just about full speed," Hayward said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Boston, adding that he was planning to start playing five-on-five this month. "As with everything, see how my ankle reacts to that. So, I'll go and test it out and see where it is. I'm excited to get back on the court."

So are the Celtics, well aware that Hayward's return bodes well for their chances of coming out of the Eastern Conference and getting back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

With most X-factor types, it comes down to them elevating their game to a certain level.

For Hayward, it's all about getting back to a familiar pace that made him one of the more coveted free agents a couple summers ago.

And in choosing to sign with the Celtics and play for his old college coach Brad Stevens, Hayward became the most highly regarded free agent to ever sign with the Celtics.

However, as he sat out last season getting his body right, the Celtics moved right along and came within a game of getting to the NBA Finals.

His return, as well as that of Kyrie Irving (he missed all of the playoffs due to a knee infection) only strengthens a Celtics roster that was already deep with talent.

But when it comes to Hayward's return, what's a realistic expectation?

While many of the pieces from last season are still around, this is not the same squad he signed on with in 2017.

Many of the questions surrounding how talented was their young core of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier, have been answered.

Reflecting on their overall bodies of work last season, there's no question that each played a prominent role in Boston advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.

And that experience not only gives them added confidence heading into this season, but will allow Hayward to ease his way back into playing following a year off, as opposed to being counted upon from Day One to carry a heavy load.

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Having already established himself in the NBA, there's no added pressure for Hayward to prove anything, to anyone other than himself.

Hayward has acknowledged the mental hurdles of getting back on the floor more than the physical ones, will prove challenging.

But having so many familiar teammates back that he had a chance to see grow before his eyes last season and who come into the season with similar team goals, will make Hayward's transition from spectator to playing, easier.

"We're going to try to win the whole thing," Hayward said. "That's what our goal is; that's where our goal should be. We have the talent to do it.

He added, "I'm going to be focused on training camp, getting through that first practice. It's been so long for me to even be out on the court. I'm very excited about where we can go next year."

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Enes Kanter shows big support for 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall in latest tweet

Enes Kanter shows big support for 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall in latest tweet

Enes Kanter seems to be a fan of Boston Celtics' 7-foot-7 rookie Tacko Fall.

Kanter posted a video to Twitter of Fall practicing at Auerbach Center, and he took time to praise Fall's efforts on Twitter.

The Celtics' signed Kanter to a two-year $10 million deal back in July, while Fall entered Boston's system as an undrafted free agent but he impressed in the Las Vegas Summer League. Kanter is the replacement for Al Horford, who left the Celtics over the summer for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The two should be a great duo for the Celtics, as both have the height and skill to be something special this coming season.

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Countdown to Celtics Camp: Record predictions for the 2019-20 campaign

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Countdown to Celtics Camp: Record predictions for the 2019-20 campaign

Entering training camp a year ago, expectations were sky-high for the Celtics. Most pundits considered them the team to beat in the East. Vegas fancied Boston as a 59-win team, the second-highest win total behind only Golden State. And a Finals matchup between those two teams was far from a pipe dream.

Fast forward a year and expectations have been tempered. The Celtics lost a pair of All-Stars this summer in Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and, despite signing another in Kemba Walker, the team finds itself widely considered a Tier 2 team in the East behind projection darlings Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

So what happens this year? Do the Celtics go back to being the sort of overachievers that have defined Brad Stevens’ coaching career? Will a younger roster struggle to simply meet even the lowered expectations of this season?

To wrap up Week 1 of our Countdown to Camp series, we asked our NBC Sports Boston panel to look into their crystal balls and predict not only Boston’s final win-loss record but how far they’d advance in the playoffs.

The  Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook projects Boston at 49.5 wins this season. The Bucks (58) and Sixers (55) top the Westgate projections and the next five teams all reside in the west. 

The Celtics went 49-33 last season, settling for the fourth seed in the East. They swept the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers in Round 1 but bowed to the top-seeded Bucks in five games in Round 2.

When you consider that Westgate’s four lowest win totals reside in the East (Knicks, Wizards, Cavaliers, Hornets) and seven East teams sit below 40 wins, it feels like the Celtics should reasonably win 50+ games despite the roster changes.

So we’ll put the Celtics at 52 wins and a spot in the East semifinals. That seeding would likely mean a second-round matchup jousting with either Giannis’ Bucks or Embiid’s Sixers and Boston’s frontcourt development might dictate just how competitive those series could be. Remember, too, Stevens tends to produce his best magic when you least expect it.

The irony, of course, is that the Celtics could win 49 games this season and get bounced in Round 2 again but if they develop chemistry and are more enjoyable to watch then last year’s gang, then Celtics fans will be far more OK with that script playing out a second time — well, so long as players make the sort of strides that suggest more is possible in the coming years.

Abby Chin: 50-32 Eastern Conference Finals

I think purely based on better chemistry and grit, this team will improve on last year’s win total. And, I’ll bank on some luck in the playoff bracket. Maybe with injuries, or regular season Al Horford, Philly and Milwaukee fall to the 2 and 3 seed so the Celtics could avoid them in the first couple rounds.

 

A. Sherrod Blakely: 50-32, East Finals

I'm gonna keep the cookies on the bottom shelf with this one. They are a better team (team not individuals) than they're going to get credit for, and they have a roster that's full of talent with a huge chip on their shoulders from the coach on down. This group will play harder, smarter and win a lot of games they probably shouldn't and by doing so, keep Celtics fans extremely happy all season.

Max Lederman: 51-31, lose in 2nd round

Before last season the Celtics have always overachieved under Brad Stevens. I expect a return to that with lowered expectations this season. The Celtics also had their worst record vs winning teams last year since Brad's 2nd season. They should put up a better fight this season.

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