Five key check­points for Celtics

Boston Herald - - CELTICS SEASON PREVIEW - By STEVE BULPETT Twit­ter: @SteveBHoop

The virtue of pa­tience

We're un­apolo­get­i­cally steal­ing this one from the top of last year's list.

While the 2017-18 crew had just four re­turnees from a 53-win con­fer­ence fi­nal­ist and had to in­tro­duce them­selves to one an­other, the cur­rent col­lec­tion should be more than fa­mil­iar with each other.

But the C's still have to re-in­te­grate Gor­don Hay­ward and find an over­all groove. There­fore, the early re­turns on this elec­tion may be ter­ri­bly in­con­clu­sive.

Last year we said you should prob­a­bly wait un­til St. Pa­trick's Day be­fore judg­ing the team's fit­ness for play­off ad­vance­ment, but things should be well in or­der long be­fore that this sea­son.

Just don't be too alarmed if things aren't per­fect this week.

The other end of the floor

Most of the at­ten­tion gets fo­cused on the of­fense — who's do­ing the scor­ing, how well the ball is mov­ing, how the num­ber of shots is dis­trib­uted, whether the ball is, you know, find­ing its way through the strings on a con­sis­tent ba­sis.

But as Brad Stevens has men­tioned on a few oc­ca­sions and Al Hor­ford al­ways seems to throw into the con­ver­sa­tion, de­fense — the will­ing­ness to play it hard and the fo­cus to stay within the scheme — may ac­tu­ally over­ride ev­ery­thing else we're talk­ing about.

The Celts will be seen as an elite team when they take the floor Tues­day and there­after, and there may be the hu­man na­ture ten­dency to get a lit­tle full of them­selves. But grit on the de­fen­sive end will largely de­ter­mine how far they go. In fact, it's their abil­ity to match up with Golden State's ti­tle tal­ent that had the War­riors more con­cerned that the C's would make it out of the East last sea­son.

De­fense not only keeps the op­po­nent's to­tal down — duh — it also cre­ates op­por­tu­nity bas­kets that do more to break a foe's will. For the first time since Paul Pierce and Kevin Gar­nett were walk­ing through that Celtics dress­ing room door on a nightly ba­sis, the Bos­to­ni­ans are the odds-on fa­vorites to rep­re­sent the East­ern Con­fer­ence in the NBA Fi­nals. But as we learned 5 min­utes and 15 sec­onds into last year’s sea­son opener, sit­u­a­tions can change in a Cleve­land minute.

That club arose from Gor­don Hay­ward’s in­jury and even the loss later in the year of Kyrie Irv­ing to make it all the way to Game 7 of the con­fer­ence fi­nals — where it promptly kissed away an all­ex­penses-paid trip to the ti­tle se­ries by tight­en­ing up and miss­ing shot af­ter shot (af­ter shot). The ex­pe­ri­ence gained in that run has made the Celtics even more able to deal with the in­evitable pot­holes in the road from here un­til next spring, but there are still check­points to hit — keys, if you will. Here are five of them:

The jig­saw puz­zle

Stevens' ti­tle re­mains “coach,” but he could just as eas­ily be seen as a chef this year. There should be lit­tle ques­tion that the Celtics have the in­gre­di­ents to chal­lenge for every goal un­der the NBA sun. Now all Stevens has to do is fig­ure out which of the in­gre­di­ents in what mea­sure and com­bi­na­tion will make for the best dish.

It will be no small feat.

Al­ready it seems the Celtics' depth will ex­ceed what fills a nor­mal ro­ta­tion. How far will Stevens go into his bench on a reg­u­lar ba­sis? Will us­ing all the de­serv­ing play­ers bring di­min­ish­ing re­turns?

And, at the heart of it, who plays best to­gether. It seems the C's will be start­ing both Jayson Ta­tum and Hay­ward, but would the club be bet­ter served to have Ta­tum com­ing off the bench as a fea­tured scorer?

Stevens must de­cide.

So is it soup yet,

Brad?

It ain’t about you

In the words of Coach Spring­steen, “Poor man want to be rich. Rich man want to be king.” The Celtics won't have quite that is­sue with their young play­ers seek­ing to take over the team, but it's true that peo­ple com­ing into the league want to es­tab­lish them­selves — then be stars.

The Celts had a few guys take gi­ant steps last sea­son, but now, even though they have im­proved and can han­dle more, they may have to do less. And whereas Irv­ing and Hay­ward are ca­pa­ble of tak­ing over a game, there will be more oc­ca­sions when it is best for the over­all goal to keep the rock mov­ing.

Pierce, Gar­nett and Ray Allen all had to sac­ri­fice a bit of their ca­pa­bil­ity when they joined to­gether in '07, and they were more ready to do so be­cause each had achieved in­di­vid­ual ac­co­lades with­out win­ning any­thing mean­ing­ful. Their prog­eny must de­velop a sim­i­lar mind­set.

Be hum­ble or stum­ble

There are a num­ber of rea­sons why the Celtics looked so hor­ri­ble in the pre­sea­son, but one of the things that seemed to stick in Stevens' craw was the fail­ure to com­pete to the level nec­es­sary.

The Celts this year will be bet­ter than every team in the East­ern Con­fer­ence — But if they don't play with the req­ui­site in­ten­sity, it won't mat­ter. Stevens is fond of say­ing that it's hard to win a game in the NBA. He says that if you don't come to play, bad teams will beat you and good teams will em­bar­rass you. He's right.

GOR­DON HAY­WARD

BRAD STEVENS

Al Hor­ford blocks a shot at­tempt.

ROOKIE BRAD WANA­MAKER JAYSON TA­TUM

KYRIE IRV­ING

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