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Reintroducing the Contenders: Boston Celtics

Are the Celtics ready to compete for a title now? We’re looking back and ahead for Boston going into the NBA’s restart.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four months is a long time. So we’re getting reacquainted with the title race by looking at the nine NBA teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the title, according to our in-house playoff odds (a.k.a. Zach Kram), plus the 76ers, who defy all math and logic, leading up to reopening night on July 30.

The Basics

Team: Boston Celtics
Record: 43-21 (third in Eastern Conference)
Numbers: 112.3 offensive rating (tied for fifth in NBA), 106.2 defensive rating (fourth), 6.1 net rating (fifth)
Seeding opponents (in order of schedule): Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat, Nets, Raptors, Magic, Grizzlies, Wizards

Last time, on the Celtics …

Where were you when you realized Jayson Tatum was becoming an honest-to-God superstar? The third-year wing was excellent as a rookie, and many were disappointed when he didn’t show significant improvement in his sophomore campaign. Those feelings were mollified this season. Before the break, Tatum was dropping 23.6 points per game on 39.8 percent shooting beyond the arc, with 7.1 boards, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals, leading the way for a Celtics team more reliant on his production than ever.

Where Tatum goes, the Celtics go. Al Horford isn’t here to clean up Boston’s mistakes in the middle, and Kemba Walker, while still superb, seems more content playing Robin to Tatum’s Dark Knight than he does replacing Kyrie Irving as the first option. Tatum’s ability to quickly live up to his predraft projection as a dynamic scorer is the reason Boston has a serious chance of winning its first title since 2008.

How they’ve spent their quarantine

Just days after play was halted, Marcus Smart announced he was one of the first players to test positive for COVID-19, and encouraged fans to take the virus seriously and practice social distancing. Elsewhere, Tatum, sensing a nationwide morale dip, decided to do his part to lighten the mood and received, and then publicized, his thoroughly confounding haircut. A Google search for “Jayson Tatum hot” returns about 680,000 results. I haven’t looked through them all, but I’m assuming none are of this look:

More importantly, some Celtics have been active participants in the fight against racism and police brutality. In late May, Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours to his home state of Georgia to lead peaceful protests in Atlanta.

“As a young person, you’ve got to listen to our perspective. Our voices need to be heard,” Brown told reporters in late May. “I’m 23 years old. I don’t know all of the answers. But I feel how everybody else is feeling, for sure. No question.”

His teammate Tatum said he opted in to the restart, in part, because of the platform it could allow him and his peers to speak in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Hopefully this is a great opportunity to continue to raise awareness and be part of history,” Tatum said. “A lot of people are going to be watching. I think we can make a stand and continue to raise awareness and not let the conversation die down. I think it’s going to be part of history.”

Seeding-games goal: Avoid the Sixers in Round 1

Boston enters the restart without much potential for movement in its seeding. At 43-21, the Celtics are three games back of the second-place Raptors, and four and a half games up on the sixth-place Sixers with only eight games to play. That’s a problem. The Sixers have been a thorn in Boston’s side for a while, but never more than this season. In four showdowns with Philly, Boston has come up short three times.

Philadelphia’s size advantage is a big reason for that. Boston has been outrebounded by an average of 12 boards across four matchups, and corrals far fewer offensive rebounds against the Sixers than against the rest of the league. Tatum, Brown, Smart, Walker, and Gordon Hayward can put forth a dominant small-ball effort against most squads, but the Sixers are uniquely qualified to disrupt that. Not only can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons bully their way through the interior, but Horford—even in his less-than-stellar form—is far superior to anything Boston can use to counter. Boston might not have great odds to jump up to the no. 2 seed, but Brad Stevens should be crossing his fingers and hoping Philly can leapfrog the Pacers for fifth.

Biggest on-court bubble question: Can Kemba stay healthy?

Kemba may not offer the same upside Irving did for the Celtics in previous campaigns, but he still plays a key role in their success. The All-Star point guard is Boston’s leading passer, and his 37.7 percent shooting on 8.8 3-point attempts per game is fourth highest among regular contributors. When he plays, Boston scores an astounding 116 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, it drops to 107.

For Boston to compete for a title in Orlando, it needs a healthy Walker running the point. The former Hornet played 50 of 64 possible games thus far, but suited up for only eight combined games in February and March thanks to injuries to his left knee. That lingering injury was worrisome for Boston fans before the hiatus, and he still isn’t fully healthy, and coaches are staggering his scrimmage and practice times to bring him along slowly. But last week, Walker said he was “trending upwards,” and that he was “getting closer to returning.”`

Player in the spotlight: Gordon Hayward

After two lackluster seasons in Boston that could largely be traced back to his gruesome injury in his Celtic debut, Hayward began to show the skill that had Utah fans enamored of him and won him a large free-agent deal with the Celtics four summers ago. Despite injuries to his left hand, nose, calf, right knee, and foot (twice) that’ve limited him to 45 starts, Hayward has mostly regained his form, scoring 17.3 points on a career-high 50.2 percent shooting from the field, and 39.2 percent shooting from deep.

Still, he hasn’t shown consistency. In his last two games before the break, against Oklahoma City and Indiana, Hayward averaged 25.5 points, shot 50 percent from the field and from 3, and added 7.5 boards and 4.5 dimes. He sat out the two games before that. And the five before those, all against teams qualified for the bubble, he averaged just 11.8 points, hitting only 27.8 percent of his tries beyond the arc. The forward, now 30, has a player option for $34.2 million for next season. How he plays in the next few weeks will surely influence the response when he likely opts in.

On a scale from Wizards to 10, where 10 is the best shot at a title, what are the Celtics’ odds of winning the 2020 title?

I’ll give Boston a 6 11/12 out of 10, for every inch of Giannis Antetokounmpo standing between them and making it out of the Eastern Conference.