BOSTON-- As feasible or as far-fetched as it may seem at the start of the season, every basketball team’s goal is to be one of the last teams standing.
In college basketball, we call it the Final Four.
Here in the NBA, it’s known as the Conference Finals which is essentially the same as college’s Final Four except the NBA guys — most anyway — make a little more money than their college brethren.
And the Boston Celtics have essentially been to the NBA’s Final Four equivalent each of the past two seasons. So you know getting back to the NBA’s final four — and beyond — has been a goal set by this team from Day One.
As we’ve seen, aspiring to certain goals and actually achieving them, are very different.
And while the Celtics won’t be in the greatest of pole positions to start the postseason, there lies hope that they can get their act together in time to at least give themselves a fighting shot at realizing their goals.
But in keeping with the Final Four mood of the moment in the basketball world, we have four burning questions that, depending on how Boston answers them in the playoffs, will go far in determining whether this crew will be dead in the water come playoff time, or whether we’ll need to dust off the duck boats for a little championship parade in a couple months.
What’s the best starting lineup?
While the widely accepted answer goes along the lines of, “depends on the matchup,” the truth is the best lineup is the one we’re seeing now that features Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart in the backcourt, with Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Aron Baynes up front.
The previous lineup with Marcus Morris in and Baynes coming off the bench was good for most of this season, but gradually that group began to fade defensively when the shots stopped falling.
But with Baynes starting, this group is not nearly as dependent on making shots because it has a dynamic 1-2 defensive punch with Horford and Baynes in the frontcourt, and a defensive stalwart in Smart who has played well enough to garner serious consideration for one of the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.
And while the sample size is relatively small (six games according to nba.com/stats), there’s no denying how well this group has played with one another since head coach Brad Stevens decided to make this the primary starting five.
Check out these stats …
- Offensive rating of 141.6
- Defensive rating of 88.2
- Net rating +53.4
- Field Goal percentage per 48 minutes: 57.8
- Three-point percentage per 48 minutes: 60.9
Now the numbers for the previous starting five that included Morris were strong as well:
- Offensive rating of 115.2
- Defensive rating of 109.0
- Net rating +6.2
- Field goal percentage per 48 minutes: 50.4
- Three-point percentage per 48 minutes: 38.4
While the Celtics know that they can’t go with this lineup for a large chunk of most games, it is the best group to set the tone for them being a defensive-minded unit — a key to having sustained postseason success.
What’s going on with Terry Rozier?
It has been a rough season for Terry Rozier, a key performer in the postseason last year who many anticipated would parlay that into a strong season just before he hits the restricted free agency market this summer.
However, like the Celtics, this season hasn’t gone as well as Rozier would have liked. And the last couple of games have been about as bad as we’ve seen him struggle shooting the ball and defending.
But as bad as Rozier has been the last couple of games, there’s still reason to be optimistic that he’ll get back on track.
Rozier is coming off a month of March in which he played arguably his best basketball of the season. He shot 42.1 percent from the field which, by the way, was the only month this season he connected on 40 percent or more of his shots. And his 9.5 points per game average in March tied his best scoring month (January) this season.
Now what Rozier really needs to shore up heading into the playoffs? His defense.
His net rating has been in the negative in four of the last five months, a clear indicator that his struggles are alive and well at both ends of the floor.
But here’s the thing about Rozier: He is tough kid who we all know can get it going at any given time. And that is the hope that he and the Celtics have going into playoffs, which a year ago was Rozier’s coming out party of sorts in the NBA.
Is Gordon Hayward ready?
While this won’t be Gordon Hayward’s first go-round in the playoffs, it will be with the Celtics. And while there are several key factors that will contribute to the team’s chances of winning, the play of Hayward will be critical.
Whether you are a card-carrying analytics lover or an old schooler who subscribes to the eye test when judging talent, there’s no getting around how much better this team is when Gordon Hayward plays well.
On nights when he shoots at least 50 percent from the field, Boston is an impressive 23-3 this season. And when Hayward scores at least 14 points, the Celtics are 19-4.
But one of the more notable areas of growth for Hayward has come on defense.
After registering a season-worst defensive rating of 108.9 in December, Hayward’s defensive rating has improved in each of the past three months.
His steady improvement as a reliable scorer coupled with better play defensively, will go far in Boston’s quest to be among the last teams standing in the NBA.
Who is the most underrated X-factor for Boston?
There are a lot of quality candidates for this one. But I would say it’s Jaylen Brown and here’s why.
Kyrie Irving gets all the headlines, Al Horford gets props for his consistency while Jayson Tatum is heralded for all his potential.
And yet when you start to look at who delivers at a relatively steady rate during games, particularly in the fourth quarter, the numbers put up by Jaylen Brown might surprise you.
Brown is shooting 50.5 percent from the field in the fourth quarter which is third among Celtics appearing in at least 49 games this season.
And his 39 percent shooting from 3-point range is second on the team among players averaging at least one, 3-point attempt in the fourth quarter per game.
But what may be most surprising about Brown down the stretch, is his scoring.
This season, Brown is averaging 4.0 points in the fourth quarter, which is second among Celtics only to Kyrie Irving (6.4).
For the Celtics to beat the odds and go on the kind of run they’re cautiously optimistic about, you can bank on Brown’s play, good or bad, being a factor to keep an eye on.
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