NBA Eastern Conference playoff preview: The Celtics have a shot

How Boston can make things interesting in the East

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 13: Evan Turner #11, Isaiah Thomas #4, Jared Sullinger #7 and Jae Crowder #99 of the Boston Celtics celebrate after defeating the Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 13, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Evan Turner, Isaiah Thomas, Jared Sullinger and Jae Crowder celebrate after defeating the Miami Heat at TD Garden on Wednesday. –Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

It took more than five months and every second of the 82-game schedule, but the 2016 Eastern Conference playoff picture is set. And you know what? The Boston Celtics have a shot. It might not be a great shot. It’s probably along the lines of a Jared Sullinger half-court heave. But unlike last year, and the year before, and even that last season with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, this year there’s a slice of Celtics reality where anything is possible. At least in the East. In this reality the Finals are only 12 wins away.

So with that, how about a 12-part, Celtics-heavy, Eastern Conference Playoff preview?

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1. The Field

1) Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25): They fired their coach, blamed everything else on Kevin Love, and spent the season firing passive aggressive nerf darts at each other on social media. Wait did I say “they”? I meant LeBron James. But for all his babyish baggage, LeBron’s still the best player in the East, with the best supporting cast in the East, and still the heavy favorite to reach the Finals for a sixth consecutive season.

2) Toronto Raptors (56-26): Charles Oakley was the starting power forward the last time Toronto advanced past the first round ,and that’s the only time it’s happened in 20 seasons of Raptors basketball. Then again, how many times have the Raptors have won 50 games in a season? The answer is once. This year. This team won 56 games and looks poised to break the franchise’s mediocre playoff mold.

3) Miami Heat (48-34): In Hassan Whiteside, Miami has the East’s best rim protector (OK, fine. Second-best after Tyler Zeller). In Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson they have two proven crunch time playoff scorers. In Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, Justise Winslow, and Josh Richardson they have one first name you’d be able to spell sight unseen, and just enough depth to leave the rest of the East incredibly thankful that Chris Bosh isn’t playoff ready.

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4) Atlanta Hawks (48-34): Last year the Hawks exploded out of the gate, took the NBA by storm, locked up the No. 1 seed, and fell off the Earth against Cleveland in the conference finals. This year Atlanta flipped the script. They paced themselves early, worked into a rhythm, won 15 of 19 down the stretch, and now pose a real threat to any team unlucky enough to draw them in the postseason.

Oh wait. Damn it.

5) Boston Celtics (48-34): Save for that second half miracle against Miami in Game 82, the Celtics have looked worn down and out of sync for about a week now. Their weaknesses are back on the media’s front burner and doubters are rapidly re-emerging like bubbles in a pot of boiling water.

In other words the Celtics have everyone right where they want them.

6) Charlotte Hornets (48-34): The last time the Charlotte HORNETS won a playoff game, Elden Campbell was the starting center. This year’s squad is about flashy as old Elden was but they’re deep, well coached, shoot the three ball real well and turn it over less than anyone in basketball.

7) Indiana Pacers (45-37): Paul George might be the second-best player on the East side of the bracket, and that counts for something. But unless Larry Bird comes out of retirement, the Pacers don’t have the fire power, depth or toughness to make a serious run.

8) Detroit Pistons (44-38): The Pistons are back in the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and in only their second year under Stan Van Gundy. It’s amazing what SVG can accomplish when he’s allowed to work without the fear of being poisoned by his franchise center.

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2. The History

* This is the first time the Celtics enter the NBA playoffs as the fifth seed. The first time ever. Of course the fifth seed didn’t exist until 1981, but either way they’re breaking new ground here.

* Seeding aside, this is the seventh time since 1981 that the Celtics start the postseason without home court advantage of any kind. In their previous six attempts they escaped the first round only once.

* This is only the third time the Celtics finished a season with exactly 48 wins and the previous two produced slightly different playoff results. In 1993, they were knocked out in the first round by Charlotte.

In 1969, they won a championship.

* This is the NBA’s 70th season, and this marks the Celtics’ 54th trip to the playoffs. That’s second all-time behind the Lakers, who have been stuck on 60 for the last three years.

Kobe has a thing for that number lately.

3. The Odds

1) Cleveland: Real odds to win the East: 5 to 13

Fake odds that LeBron blocks a teammate on Twitter after a key late-game turnover: 7 to 1.

2) Toronto: Real odds to win the East: 5 to 1

Fake odds that Toronto leads the playoffs in “Games Played on NBA TV”: 3 to 1.

3) Miami: Real odds to win the East: 12 to 1

Fake odds on Joe Johnson’s fourth quarter playoff assist total: over/under 1.5.

4) Atlanta: Real odds to win the East: 10 to 1

Fake odds on the number of playoffs sellouts at Philips Arena: over/under .5

5) Boston: Real odds to win the East: 15 to 1

Fake odds that Tommy Heinsohn swears at a ref on live TV: 5 to 1.

6) Charlotte: Real odds to win the East: 25 to 1

Fake odds on the number of Crying Jordan memes posted after Charlotte’s eventual elimination: over/under 10,000.

7) Indiana: Real odds to win the East: 50 to 1

Fake odds that Ty Lawson makes a playoff police blotter appearance: 15-1.

8) Detroit: Real odds to win the East: 75-1

Fake odds on total number of undershirts Stan Van Gundy burns through in Round 1: over/under 17.

4. The First Round

Cleveland (1) vs. Detroit (8): Detroit took three of four from the Cavs in the regular season, even if — based on the Jordan McRae Principle — only three of those games should count. Still LeBron only averaged 20.7 points against the Pistons this year. That’s his lowest against any Eastern Conference opponent. Between that and the potential for Andre Drummond to flex all over Cleveland’s weak frontcourt, this isn’t a dream first round match-up for the Cavs.

Atlanta (4) vs. Boston (5): I’ll write more about this match-up tomorrow but in the meantime — a little more history: This will be the 12th all-time playoff series between the Celtics and Hawks. The Knicks are Boston’s most common playoff opponent at 14, but this series ties Atlanta with the Lakers and Sixers for second place.

Miami (3) vs. Charlotte (6): It remains to be seen whether Hassan Whiteside is mentally strong enough to keep his emotions in check for an entire playoff series. Especially in this case, when he’ll spend 30 minutes a night getting his brain scrambled in the Al Jefferson Low Post Torture Chamber.

Toronto (2) vs. Indiana (7): The Raptors won three of four match-ups in the regular season, plus you can’t discount the impact of a Luis Scola Revenge Series.

5. The Five Most Important Celtics

5) Jared Sullinger: Sullinger has a bad match-up against the Hawks. Or more they’re a bad match-up for him. He can’t really hang with Horford. He certainly can’t chase Paul Millsap around. In four regular season games, Sullinger had a -12.1 net efficiency against Atlanta, and averaged only 7.8 points and six rebounds. Again, this mismatch is mostly physical, so it might be unreasonable (in short time) to expect Sullinger to breakthrough. But it’s also tough to imagine the Celtics advancing with their most reliable post presence Out of Order.

Stat Pack: The Celtics are 4-8 this year when Sullinger attempts three or more three-pointers in a game.

4) Marcus Smart: I won’t cite specific numbers on Marcus because it’s not about numbers with him. Right now it’s about emotion and I don’t think anyone, including Marcus, is quite sure what’s going on. We all know what it looks like when the stars align and this 22-year-old takes over an entire game on sheer will. We know what it looks like when something’s out of place and “sheer will” transforms into a runaway locomotive with the front car on fire and a nuclear bomb strapped to the caboose. Age and experience will sort that out in time, but for now all you can do is hope for the best.

Stat pack: Smart is officially listed at 55 percent wild and 60 percent crazy.

3) Jae Crowder: He hasn’t been the same since his high ankle sprain and probably won’t be 100 percent until next season. And while the Celtics can probably be a good team without Crowder at his best, they’re only great when No. 99 is burning on all cylinders, active on both ends and breathing fire that hasn’t been seen around these parts since the dawn of KG. At the very least, and this might have more to do with the ankle injury, Crowder needs to reclaim some consistency from deep. The Celtics need that spacing. In December and January, Crowder was 64 for 170 (.376) from three-point range. As of today, over his last 12 games, he’s 17 for 69 (.246).

Stat Pack: The Celtics are 14-4 in games where Crowder drops 18+ points.

2) Kelly Olynyk: When Olynyk is bad, he’s as bad as maybe any player in the NBA. He’s borderline useless. He’s a shooter that’s scared to shoot and so completely overmatched in every other aspect of the game. He looks like a seven-foot kindergartner out there.

But in those rare moments when Olynyk let’s his hair down, finds some courage and just plays basketball, he’s a game changer. He can be a series changer. He’s a seven-footer who demands respect from 25 feet, and that’s just deadly in today’s NBA. In those moments his defense still stinks, but you have Crowder, Smart and Avery Bradley out there to mask the smell. You have a team that’s capable of reaching far greater heights than they otherwise might with this former lottery pick chewing his nails on the sidelines.

Stat pack: The Celtics are 7-1 when Olynyk scores 19+ points this season. The one loss came in double overtime against Golden State.

1) Isaiah Thomas: There’s been conversation about whether Thomas or Crowder is the most important player on the Celtics, but there shouldn’t be. Crowder can do a lot of things. He’s a top-notch glue guy. But Thomas is the foundation of this team, and without the foundation the glue is useless. He’s still the only guy capable of single-handedly creating offense on a nightly basis. He’s the spirit of this team. He’s the chip on their shoulder. Bottom line: Jae Crowder can have the best playoffs series of his life. He can be the best Jae Crowder there is. But the Celtics will ultimately only go as far as Isaiah Thomas carries them.

Stat Pack: IT scored less than 20 points only 24 times year, and the Celtics went 13-11 in those games. However, 13 of the 24 games came against 2016 playoff teams, and in those the Celtics went 5-8.

6. Five Most Important Non Celtics

5) Kevin Love: The only way that Love can ever truly breakthrough in Cleveland, and earn real respect from LeBron, is to make it happen in the playoffs. Last year he was injured before he had chance. This second attempt won’t begin with any less underlying tension, but if he can stay healthy and find a consistent place in the game plan, the Cavs will run through the East gauntlet with ease.

4) Hassan Whiteside: There are two Whiteside scenarios in these playoffs. In the first one he doesn’t take his eyes off the obscene long-term guaranteed contract at the end of the postseason tunnel and it fuels him and the Heat into the conference finals. In the second scenario Whiteside has an adverse reaction to playoff fever, freaks out and throws a punch at Spencer Hawes in the fourth quarter of Game 1.

3) DeMarre Carroll: We know that Kyle Lowry will come to play and lead the Raptors in every which way. We know that Demarr DeRozan will step up and be the perfect second banana. We also know that the Raptors need a third guy to come through if they have any chance of unseating the Cavs, and we know they brought in Carroll to be that guy. Now maybe that’s expecting too much of a player who missed all but 26 games with a knee injury and hasn’t played more than 30 minutes in any game since December 3. But with Paul George on tap in Round 1 and LeBron ultimately standing in the way, Toronto needs Carroll to Carroll.

2) Paul Millsap: The Celtics went up against a bunch of dominant individual performances this year, but no one affected any game more than Millsap did on April 9. The final tally was 31 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, two steals and five blocks, but believe it or not that somehow still doesn’t do the performance justice.

The biggest knock on this current version of the Hawks is that they lack a superstar, but this year Millsap has been damn close. If he has one more level to his ceiling, the Hawks will make some noise.

1) LeBron James: Love him, hate him, love to hate him — he’s still the most dominant presence in the conference. He’s the guy who will have the most to say about which team is ultimately sacrificed to the Western Conference champs. He averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists this season, but still seemed to be holding back some — like he was just conserving his mind and body for this stage of the season and is about to unleash five months worth of pent up “Steph’s the best! Kawhi’s the best! Durant should come to the East and unseat LeBron!” frustration on an unsuspecting league.

Or maybe he’ll roll up in a ball and move back to Miami this summer.

We’ll see.

7. The Coaches

Brad Stevens is a great coach. It’s comforting to know that on any given night, most likely won’t lose the game from the sidelines. On most nights they’ll have a definitive coaching advantage. But this year’s Eastern Conference playoff field is stocked across the board with real quality coaching. Forget Coach James in Cleveland. After that you’ve got Duane Casey doing great things in Toronto. You’ve got Erik Spoelstra, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford, Frank Vogel and Stan Van Gundy. If you’re Brad Stevens, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

8. The Schedule

One of the biggest knocks on the Celtics is that they’re better built for the regular season than the playoffs. The NBA schedule is long and taxing, but the Celtics core is so intense and passionate and unrelenting that they bring it almost every night, regardless of any legitimate excuses. Basically the Celtics are the team you don’t want to play when you don’t really want to play, and they take advantage of that over the course of 82 games. More than anything they win on desire and effort. For the season they were 12-7 on the second night of a back-to-back, they were 26-19 on one day’s rest. They were 8-8 on two or more days rest.

They had more success on less rest, but the playoffs are all about rest. Long, drawn out series where you can’t really take advantage of the other team not wanting to play because it’s the playoffs. Everyone wants to play. You don’t win on desire and effort as much as you do pure talent.

9. The Pace

The Celtics like to push the tempo. Tommy Heinsohn REALLY likes when they push the tempo. Given the makeup of their roster, the Celtics need to push the tempo if they’re going to carry their regular season success into the playoffs.

Now obviously that’s an issue because they say that things slow down in the postseason. That’s it more of a half court game. In that case, Isaiah Thomas is more limited and the entire offense feels the burn.

But despite these claims, and some actual previous evidence, pace wasn’t the Celtics problem in last year’s postseason. They were fifth in the regular season at 95.8 last year. In the playoffs against Cleveland, their pace was 95.9. They were still swept but pace wasn’t the problem, and they’ll do everything they can to avoid that again this time around.

10. The Refs

They’re going to be bad. Like really bad. At some point during these playoffs, especially without a superstar, especially when the officials don’t exactly live in fear of Brad Stevens’s wrath, the Celtics will be on the wrong end of one or two or many really bad calls and it will test your limits as a sports fan and human being. You’ll cry fix. You’ll send angry tweets. You’ll sit in the stands and scream things that you’ll feel really embarrassed about a few hours later. You’ll wonder why you even put forth the time and effort to care about a league that lets under-qualified bums ruin the livelihood of the best athletes in the world.

And then you’ll get over it.

You have to.

At this point, as an educated NBA fan, you go into the playoffs knowing that the refs will be an issue. They will drive you insane. But it’s like wind at the beach. You either stop going or just grit your teeth and deal with it.

11. The Scenario

I mentioned at the top that the Celtics have a shot, no matter how tiny, of emerging from the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket. Here’s the most likely way that plays out.

Round 1: Beat Atlanta. Obviously. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow but for now let’s keep it simple. They beat Atlanta. Meanwhile the Pistons take the Cavs to six games. At the very least they hand Cleveland one really frustrating loss, just enough to poke at their underlying volatility and sprout a tiny seed of locker room dissension.

Round 2: The Celtics take Game 1 or 2 in Cleveland, and that’s on Brad Stevens. Coaching is the biggest advantage that Boston has on Cleveland. Brad will have to win them at least two games, and if it’s one of the first two, that seed of dissension will start growing like a weed inside the Cavs locker room. LeBron will be testier than ever. Meanwhile now the series heads back to the Garden, which will be louder than it’s been at any point since Stevens came on board. If Celtics can take even one of those games, you’ve got a three-game series. You’ve got Cleveland feeling all the pressure, and they don’t seem like a squad that’s built to handle that all too well. Meanwhile the Celtics are still out there with nothing to lose, convincing themselves that no one believes and it’s them against the world. And again, you’ve got Brad Stevens vs. Tyronn Lue. In which case, all things considered, you have a chance.

Round 3: It would be great if Toronto gets upset along the way. Miami, Charlotte or Indiana would be a far more favorable match-up. But let’s say that it’s Toronto, and let’s say that the physical toll of two long series has left DeMarre Carroll on the shelf. He’s done. He’s already getting healthy for next year. Even then the Celtics will have to outplay a bigger, stronger, more talented team to advance to the Finals, but —

12) The Reality

The Celtics are playing with house money.

Just remember that.

This isn’t like the last Big 3 era when every postseason was played in the shadow of an ever-closing window. This is fun. This is a luxury. This is an opportunity to make some noise, build some morale, audition for free agents and live a carefree postseason existence while the Nets pick sits in a basket of ping pong balls with a 15 percent chance of coming out on top.

This is perfect.

And the Celtics might have to be perfect in order to fight their way into a date with the Warriors or Spurs, but hey — anything’s possible.

These Celtics made five straight Finals before Lebron did

 

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