Four factors playing a role in Boston Celtics' playoff plans

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Four factors playing a role in Boston Celtics' playoff plans

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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Gordon Hayward wishes Kyrie Irving good luck, 'excited to welcome... the other guys'

Gordon Hayward wishes Kyrie Irving good luck, 'excited to welcome... the other guys'

BURLINGTON, Mass. — The role that a healthy Gordon Hayward will play next season is a big deal for the Boston Celtics. 

But it becomes even more significant with the Celtics being among the teams that got swept up in the sea of change that engulfed the NBA this summer during free agency. 

In addition to losing Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn) and Al Horford (Philadelphia), the Celtics traded away Aron Baynes to Phoenix to free up salary cap space, and lost Marcus Morris who signed with the New York Knicks. 

“The interesting part of the league is the drama that happens every offseason,” Hayward told reporters following the Boston Celtics and Arbella Insurance Home Makeover Program. “I don’t know if there’s any league like that, where you have major guys moving teams.”

But the talk around these parts centers heavily on Irving, who left Boston despite back in October proclaiming he would re-sign with the Celtics

Hayward, who has the same birthday (March 23) as Irving, said the Celtics would miss Irving’s talent for sure. 

“I wish him the best of luck as he goes to Brooklyn. As a team we’re excited about who we have coming in,” said Hayward, who was commenting publicly for the first time since Irving's decision to not re-sign with Boston. “I’m more than excited to welcome Kemba (Walker) and Enes (Kanter), and all the other guys that are new for us.”

Hayward has been a regular at the Celtics practice facility this summer and has been pleasantly surprised to see the Celtic newcomers in regular attendance. 

But as good as they may look, Hayward knows all too well that success for Boston this season will hinge heavily on his play as well as his four teammates — Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — who are currently bonding down under in Australia as part of Team USA. 

“That’s really cool for us to have four guys on the team, to represent the US,” Hayward said. “For sure, early stages for some bonding and chemistry building. I hope they bring back the gold.”

Hayward was on the list of participants last year to be part of Team USA, but he said his focus this offseason has been on working out in Boston in preparation for next season. 

“I wanted to just stay here, have a whole summer where I could train,” Hayward said. “Try to get myself feeling pretty good.”

As much as this summer has been about building up his body, Hayward admits it has also been good boost to his confidence, too. 

“More than anything, just building back some confidence; being able to do everything that I’m used to doing,” he said. “Reps is what gives you confidence, being able to do things over and over and over and not worry about how my ankle is feeling or having to be cautious with it, has been really good for my confidence.” 

The addition of Walker and Kanter along with the continued growth of Tatum and Brown will certainly bode well for Boston’s chances at success this year. 

But for them to have a special season, one in which they defy the odds and finish at or near the top of the NBA standings, the play of Hayward will go far in determining how far this team can go. 

Last season, Hayward showed flashes near the end of the season of being All-Star Hayward. 

But as defenses tightened up on Hayward, his impact scoring-wise significantly decreased and defensively, he struggled at times keeping himself between the basket and defenders.

The 29-year-old appeared in 72 games for Boston, averaging 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists while averaging 25.9 minutes per game — his fewest since he averaged 16.9 minutes per game as a rookie with the Jazz. 

Hayward should improve most if not all of those numbers this season, especially coming off a summer when he was able to return back to his pre-injury offseason regimen.

“That has felt really nice; being able to train how I’m used to training,” Hayward said. “Not having to worry about doing stuff for only 10 minutes, only doing a certain amount of reps. It’s been really good from that standpoint, I’ll say.”

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Kemba Walker happily joins NBA players in roasting Kyle Kuzma's outfit


Kemba Walker happily joins NBA players in roasting Kyle Kuzma's outfit

By all accounts, Kemba Walker sounds like he's getting along well with Team USA ahead of the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

But that won't stop him from piling on teammate Kyle Kuzma.

It all started when the young Los Angeles Lakers forward and Team USA member posted an Instagram photo of himself wearing a pretty hideous outfit.

Kuzma immediately took heat for his wardrobe choice -- Isaiah Thomas: "Cuh that ain't it!!!! Come on bro;" Anthony Davis: "Man what the hell you got on!" -- and inadvertently sparked a new trend in the #kuzchallenge.

And guess who joined in with Kuzma standing right next to him during a Team USA photo shoot in Australia?

Celtics guard Jaylen Brown also shared a video on his Instagram story of Walker mocking Kuzma (and getting a pretty good rise out of teammate Jayson Tatum).

This is quality trolling from Walker, and it didn't go unnoticed, as Kuzma fired a playful shot back in the Celtics guard's direction on his Instagram story.

Kuzma and Walker probably won't be as chummy when they meet as rivals during the regular season, but at least the two can have some fun at each other's expense.

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