Celtics

The Celtics are getting back to where they started

The Celtics are getting back to where they started

INDIANAPOLIS — On the eve of training camp in late September, Celtics players shuttled their way through a series of photoshoots on a soundstage in suburban Boston as part of Media Day chores. It was no accident that the quintet of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown were eventually herded together for what became the most memorable snapshot of the day.

The five players — arguably the most talented on the roster and the presumed starting 5 — were asked to cross their arms and stare menacingly at the camera. But the players couldn’t stop laughing. Even in the best take, Horford and Irving can barely muffle their smiles.

This was the lineup that was supposed to deliver the Celtics to the championship stage. Horford, Tatum, and Brown had nearly willed Boston there four months earlier and the return of Irving and Hayward from injuries made the Celtics the early favorite in a LeBron-less Eastern Conference.

When Boston stumbled out of the gates at the start of the 2018-19 season, weighed down in part by the burden of expectations, nothing was quite as confounding as the struggles of that first unit.

The lineup played 137 minutes together over 13 games but owned a minus-3.9 net rating, including an impossibly anemic 91.1 offensive rating. After a month, coach Brad Stevens had no choice but to make changes, shuffling Hayward to the reserve role that he would maintain for most of the season.

Astoundingly, that group would play only seven more minutes together the rest of the regular season. It was telling, however, that Stevens got a couple of very short glimpses at that pairing late in the season, almost like even he was curious whether that lineup could work again given the progress each player had made individually.

Which is why it’s particularly noticeable that, in Boston’s last two games against the Pacers, Stevens has deployed that original starting 5 as his closing-time lineup.

Yes, the Newport 5 rides again.

While it’s important to stress the small sample size, the Kyrie-Hayward-Horford-Tatum-Brown lineup has outscored Indiana by an eye-popping 42.9 points per 100 possessions in 10 minutes together. In hard numbers, that’ simply a 27-18 advantage but they pass the eye test. And the fact that Stevens has been able to lean heavily on that group in two crunch-time situations might just be the biggest development of Boston’s otherwise snooze-worthy first-round series.

Here’s why: Looking ahead to a potential second-round matchup with the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, there is the possibility that Boston could deploy its original starting 5 more frequently in hopes of exploiting matchups. There’s a strong case to be made that it should be Boston’s starting unit in situations where it can’t lean on the two-big lineup with Aron Baynes like it has against Indiana.

But why exactly did that lineup struggle so mightily at the start of the year and why would the team be confident it could thrive now?

“I just think it was probably a lot of high expectations and a lot of pressure at the beginning of the year,” Horford said Saturday after the team huddled for film in advance of Sunday’s Game 4. "I think we’ve been through a year together, we understand what we need to do on the floor, how we need to play. I’m happy to be able to see all of us out there playing together.”

Does Horford think that lineup unfairly scrutinized earlier in the year?

“No, I just think that we all needed to understand how we needed to play and it took changing the lineup for most of the year,” said Horford. "I think everyone understands what they need to do at this point.”

Part of the reason we didn’t see this lineup much during the regular season was that, after Marcus Smart elevated to a starting role in late November, he never relinquished it. Stevens didn’t have an easy way to pair his original starting 5, at least not until the final weeks of the season when early sub lineups offered a chance to examine it in small doses.

Reflecting on the change, Stevens noted how good the lineup had been defensively to start the year but that it simply never clicked offensively.

"They were elite defensively, we just had to figure out how to play well together and everybody give a little in that group and those types of things,” said Stevens. "Ever since then we’ve been starting differently and haven’t had a chance because of our rotations to go back to it very often. Obviously, Smart being out, you’re playing less guys and finishing it small with either that group or [Marcus] Morris for one of those guys. 

"I was encouraged by what I’ve seen them do in very small samples for the last couple of months. But it’s very small. They’re all good players. We feel more comfortable in what we’re trying to accomplish, more comfortable in complementing each other, so it makes sense that it would be better.”

It always felt like the Celtics’ original starting 5 needed to find its way back together if Boston was going to reach its loftiest goals. It gives Boston a versatility and an offensive potential that no other combination can provide. And the team has really only scratched the surface of what’s possible. You can sense the players’ curiosity in the pairing.

"It just shows we’ve come a long way, honestly, in terms of our maturity as a group, just our mindset with whoever’s on the floor making sure we’re all giving each other confidence and we’re all in the right spots doing little things to assure a win,” Irving said after Friday’s Game 3 triumph. "When you have that type of camaraderie going into huddles, everyone’s talking, everyone’s feeling great and going out there and executing on the offensive end and defensive end it makes it a lot easier. 

"So when you’ve got that group that started off — and we started off pretty horribly this season — and we just had time just to figure it out. Now that the stakes are at their highest, the pressure or whatever you want to call it, I feel like we’re settling into who we really want to be, and that’s just an overall great team. Everyone’s ready to play and it could be anyone’s night and you’ve just got to be ready to support that.”

The Celtics will have other options for small-ball lineups should they need to adjust in future rounds. Morris provides a similar defensive versatility to Hayward, who has thrived in a bench role (and one that Stevens has yearned to keep him in). Semi Ojeleye was called on repeatedly in last year’s Bucks series, including a Game 7 start, because of his ability to joust with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But maybe the original 5 will get another chance to show their potential. The Celtics yearn to write a positive ending to a maddening season, and the starting 5 earning their own redemption might just be the key to whether that happens.

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What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

When the NBA season was put on pause in March, the timing could not have been much better for the Boston Celtics. 

Wins were getting harder to come by (they had lost three of their last five), the jacuzzi-hot play of Jayson Tatum was starting to cool off some and Kemba Walker was headed towards a stretch of “strategic rest” days off because of knee soreness. 

And just like the rest of the NBA is fired up about the potential return to play reportedly as early as the end of late July, the Celtics are an eager bunch to restart the season as well. 

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And they should be for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, there’s a very real chance that they can move up in the standings if the league adopts the reported return-to-play model which includes eight regular season games before the playoffs. 

Currently third in the East, the Celtics would begin the postseason against Philadelphia if the league went straight into the playoffs — an idea that hasn’t garnered a ton of support from owners or players. 

An eight-game slate of games would provide Boston with enough opportunities to potentially move ahead of Toronto and secure the No. 2 seed in the East. 

The way the standings look now, the potential for movement is great for many teams. 

Boston (43-21) trails the Raptors (46-18) by three games in the standings. Behind the Celtics you find the Heat (41-24) who are 2.5 games back.

The next closest teams to Boston beyond those two are Indiana and Philadelphia (both 39-26) who each trail Boston by 4.5 games. 

For the Celtics’ sake, moving up from their current draft position and avoiding a first-round matchup with Philadelphia would be the preferred path to take this postseason. 

The Sixers, one of the bigger disappointments this season, will feature a healthy Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, making them a much tougher foe come playoff time. 

For the Celtics, the alternative if they move up would be a Brooklyn Nets team that’s expected to play this postseason without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant who have both been out recovering from injuries. 

There’s also a chance that Boston would face the Indiana Pacers in the first round if the C's remain as the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed which, similar to facing Philadelphia, would provide a tough first-round matchup. 

The reboot to the season also allows more time for the Celtics to adjust to what’s shaping up to be a new pecking order. 

While Walker is the team’s most proven, most decorated talent, there’s no escaping the inevitable rise of Tatum as the face of the franchise (if he’s not already there). 

As the season wore on, his ascension was undeniable. Tatum began the season as a player the Celtics were hoping to see blossom into a big-time talent with the departures of Irving (Brooklyn) and Al Horford (Philadelphia).

Following his first All-Star appearance in February, Tatum averaged 29.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the field and 46.8 percent on 3’s. His ability to pick up where he left off would go far in Boston’s quest to build off the successes they had this past season. 

As for Walker, he had missed some games and played limited minutes in others shortly before the season was paused thanks to knee soreness.

The extended downtime without games or practice should allow Walker to return to action revived and refreshed.

And him being healthy combined with Tatum’s improved play gives the Celtics a potent 1-2 punch as they inch closer to rebooting the system and in doing so, restarting their journey towards what they believe will be a deep postseason run. 

Updated NBA playoff picture amid reported 22-team season return plan

Updated NBA playoff picture amid reported 22-team season return plan

The NBA is on track to return and finish the 2019-20 season.

The league reportedly is set to approve a 22-team format to conclude the campaign. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted Wednesday the breakdown of the conferences.

It's important to note this proposal includes every playoff round keeping its normal Best-of-7 format, per Marc Stein of the New York Times. There had been speculation that the first round could return to a Best-of-5 format to allow the playoffs to be done quicker.

Under the proposal noted above, eight more regular season games will be played by each of the 22 teams, so it's still possible that teams outside of a playoff spot could jump into the mix if they play well upon returning. It's also very possible, especially in the Western Conference, that the seeding could change after the eight games are played. 

According to The Athletic's Shams Charania, a play-in tournament could decide the No. 8 seed in each conference. Here's how that would work:

If the ninth seed is more than four games behind the eighth seed, the eighth seed earns the playoff spot; if the ninth seed is four or fewer games behind, then the eighth and ninth seed will enter a play-in tournament that is double-elimination for the eighth seed and single-elimination for ninth.

Let's take an updated look at the playoff picture in both conferences.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Milwaukee Bucks: 53-12, 0 games back
2. Toronto Raptors: 46-18, 6.5 GB
3. Boston Celtics: 43-21, 9.5 GB
4. Miami Heat: 41-24, 12 GB
5. Indiana Pacers: 39-26, 14 GB
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26, 14 GB
7. Brooklyn Nets: 30-24, 22.5 GB
8. Orlando Magic: 30-25, 23 GB
9. Washington Wizards: 24-40, 28.5 GB

The Boston Celtics would play the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round if the league went straight to the playoffs. This would be a tough matchup for Boston given Philly's impressive roster and the fact the Sixers won three out of four games in the 2019-20 season series. 

But with eight regular season games left to be played under this proposal, it's possible the 76ers could move as high as the No. 4 or No. 5 seed. The ideal first-round opponent for the C's -- if they stay in the No. 3 seed -- would be the Indiana Pacers, who Boston swept in last year's first round. The Pacers don't have the same superstar skill, interior size or matchup problems that the Sixers would give the Celtics.

It's also possible the Celtics could fall to the No. 4 seed, or even climb to the No. 2 seed if the Toronto Raptors falter. The most likely scenario is the C's staying where they are at No. 3.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14, 0 games back
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 44-20, 5.5 GB
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22, 7 GB
4. Utah Jazz: 41-23, 8.5 GB
5. OKC Thunder: 40-24, 9.5 GB
6. Houston Rockets: 40-24, 9.5 GB
7. Dallas Mavericks: 40-27, 11 GB
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33, 18 GB
9. Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37, 21.5 GB
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36, 21.5 GB
11. Sacramento Kings: 28-36, 21.5 GB
12. San Antonio Spurs: 27-36, 22 GB
13. Phoenix Suns: 26-39, 24 GB

The regular season finish in the West could be crazy and exciting with seeds No. 4 through No. 7 separated by just 2.5 games. The Lakers would have to really collapse to lose the No. 1 seed, and the Clippers are unlikely to fall below No. 3. Aside from the two L.A. teams, much of the playoff seeding in the West remains up for grabs. 

The race for the final spot will be interesting as well. The New Orleans Pelicans, with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson healthy and in the lineup, will be among the most-watched teams. It would be awesome if the Pelicans earned the No. 8 seed and Williamson went up against LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round, but the odds aren't on New Orleans' side.

If the Grizzlies hold on and secure a postseason berth, their 2020 first-round pick will go to the Celtics.