By Kyle Schroeder – Contributing Writer
Coming into the 2016-17 NBA season, the Boston Celtics had some lofty expectations placed upon them. With the additions of Al Horford in free agency and Jaylen Brown in the draft, the Celtics were expected to finish second in the Eastern Conference behind the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. But with those two additions, the solid two-way play of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, and the otherworldly offensive explosion from Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics exceeded those expectations.
The team finished the regular season with 53 wins and beat out Lebron James and the Cavs for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the NBA game is known to change in the playoffs. Teams can spend more time scouting opponents, there is more pressure to win and every team is putting in maximum effort for all 48 minutes. With that said, here are the two biggest keys to the Celtics making a deep playoff run.
1. By far the most important piece to the Celtics advancing deep in the playoffs is playing defense the way they are capable of. Last season, Boston allowed 100.9 points per 100 possessions which was good for fourth best in the league. There was talk of the C’s being the best defense in the NBA this season with their best defenders all coming back and Horford providing a defensive upgrade over Jared Sullinger.
Instead, the Celtics got worse by allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions which ranked 12th in the league. It was clear the effort wasn’t the same this regular season as it was last season on that end of the floor. Isaiah Thomas suggested this after a loss to the Washington Wizards in January.
“I remember last year, dudes didn’t like playing against us. Even after games, my friends on different teams would be like, ‘Man, you guys played way too hard for us. You guys were in us, you guys were physical.’ We don’t have that presence anymore. We need to get it back,” Thomas said.
Boston has shown that presence in wins against Cleveland and Golden State this season in which they held the teams to 99 and 86 points respectively. If they can ramp up the effort on that end of the floor in the playoffs, the Celtics have the talent to be the elite defensive team they were last season in the most important games of the year.
2. On the offensive end of the floor, the play of Horford will determine whether the Celtics offense sinks or swims in the playoffs. While Thomas has been absolutely phenomenal this season scoring 29 points per game on 46% shooting — in the playoffs, teams will have more time to game plan for him. That means other guys will have to pick up the scoring slack with the extra attention on Thomas. The inability to do that doomed Boston last season against Atlanta as they couldn’t make the Hawks pay for directing so much attention toward Thomas.
With Horford now on the Celtics side, they have the potential answer to that problem. Horford has the ability to shoot the three, drive close outs and make the correct decision while the defense is in rotation. Horford’s shooting ability from downtown (35%) can make teams pay for putting two defenders on Thomas off a Thomas-Horford pick and roll.
If he proves he can knock down that shot, it would give Thomas more space to operate as a scorer which makes the offense more difficult to defend. In addition to the shooting, Horford gives the Celtics a big guy to throw the ball to in the post to create offense. Horford is shooting 48% on post-up opportunities, which shows he can be a valuable asset in that regard.
The problem with Horford is he tends to have rough stretches where he goes cold from the field and becomes passive. If that happens in the playoffs, the Celtics will not make the deep run they hope to have.
It has been a tremendous season for the Celtics, but now everything about their team will be put to the test in the pressure cooker that is the NBA playoffs. It all starts on Easter Sunday when Jimmy Butler and Chicago Bulls come to town for Game 1 of the first round series.