A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP BOSTON
THIS TEAM can win the East or get beat in the first round. They have great talent but sometimes they have no chemistry.... KYRIE IRVING is having one of his best seasons, maybe his best. He's the same pure scorer and one of the best fourth-quarter closers in the league. But when he gets it going, there is a tendency for everyone to watch him. When they make four or five passes, they are tough to guard.... They have been a really good defensive team for the last two years. They can switch as well as any team in the league. They have versatile bigs, big guards and they are physical.... GORDON HAYWARD just isn't right. He doesn't look hurt, but the explosion and the sharp cuts that were there in Utah just aren't there now. [Coach] Brad Stevens did the right thing moving him to the bench. It takes some of the pressure off. And he's an effective scorer with the second-unit guys.... MARCUS MORRIS has been a godsend. He's been consistent, he's tough, he's fearless, he defends and he makes big shots.... I love Marcus Smart. He's a top three perimeter defender. Stevens trusts him. The key is his shooting. He's been much better this year, but teams will still give him a shot if it means helping on Kyrie or JAYSON TATUM. He's going to get a lot of open looks in the playoffs.... Tatum has not taken the kind of step forward I expected. Some of that is having to share the ball more. But he doesn't take advantage of his size. He takes a lot of midrange jump shots when he should be driving and using that length to score over people. He settles too much.
THERE ARE games—back-to-back wins over Philadelphia and Detroit before the All-Star break—in which the Celtics look like the preseason favorites, with a top five defense handcuffing elite scorers and a roster steeped in talent producing on the offensive end. There are other games—like in consecutive losses to the Lakers and the Clippers earlier this month—in which Boston has played like a disconnected bunch of hero ballers who don't seem to like playing together.
Kyrie Irving has shone statistically, but he's struggled in a leadership role, and his pending free agency has been a distraction. Jayson Tatum's scoring is up, but his shooting percentages have dipped. Jaylen Brown's, too. Terry Rozier, a breakout star last postseason, has had a bumpy reentry into a backup role. The wild card: Gordon Hayward, who, after a predictably slow start coming back from the grotesque ankle injury that cost him all but five minutes of last season, is slowly rounding into form. In February, he's connected on 57.1% of his shots and 52.4% of his threes, while cracking double figures in five of the Celtics seven games before the break.
A productive Hayward coupled with the impending return of defensive anchor Aron Baynes make tipping the Celtics to go on a deep postseason run a believable prediction. But with this enigmatic bunch, just about every prediction of how Boston's season will end is believable.
4 BOSTON CELTICS
KEY IN-SEASON MOVES
1,120 TELLING NUMBER
Free throws attempted by the Celtics. No team has taken fewer trips to the line this year.