The Celtics’ quest for banner No. 18 will begin with a first-round series against the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers.
“I’m extremely excited for the playoffs,’’ said forward Gordon Hayward, who missed all but five minutes of last season due to a gruesome ankle injury. “This is the reason why I came to Boston.’’
Despite falling short of their lofty preseason expectations, the 49-33 Celtics are viewing the postseason as a separate entity. They say their chemistry woes, their losses against inferior teams, and their blown double-digit leads from the regular season are behind them.
“The playoffs are a different animal,’’ president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. “It’s a fresh start, a reset button. We’re excited about it.’’
“We don’t really care about the ups and downs of the season,’’ added coach Brad Stevens. “ “That’s over. Can we be at our very best, as coach [Bill] Belichick says, when our best is needed? Right? Our best is needed now.’’
Here’s a look at their upcoming series and the playoff picture:
How they got here
Assembling perhaps one of the most disappointing collections of 82 games, the Celtics never seemed to find their rhythm this season. Each time the team appeared to be trending in the right direction, a maddening loss would follow.
In November, there was Denver Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray’s 48-point performance that ended with Kyrie Irving chucking the ball into the stands. In December, there was the eight-point loss to the bottom-dwelling Phoenix Suns, which was followed by the blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that spurred a players-only meeting. Also in December, on New Year’s Eve, the San Antonio Spurs racked up 46 points in the third quarter alone.
In January, there was a three-game road skid. In February, there were back-to-back collapses in which the team blew 20-plus point leads in the second half against both Los Angeles teams. Later in February, immediately following the All-Star Break, there was the four-game losing streak that included a 10-point loss to the Chicago Bulls.
The list goes on. The team strung together five losing streaks of three games or more. Last season, the team had two such streaks.
As the tallies in the loss column began to pile up, so did the moments of frustrations. Multiple players have said the year hasn’t been fun.
But that’s not to say the season didn’t have its bright spots. There were some notable victories, including an overtime thriller over the Toronto Raptors and a 33-point shellacking of the Golden State Warriors (who were without Klay Thompson). There were also instances where one quarter would just derail the team’s otherwise solid 36 minutes.
Given those flashes and their overwhelming talent, the Celtics remain optimistic.
“I think this year we’ve played great basketball a lot,’’ Ainge said. “I think this team has shown, under coach Stevens’s leadership, that we’ve played with great resolve over the last few years. I think that the team will have that in the playoffs this year.’’
Players to watch
With the Celtics, it’s tempting to list nearly everyone on the roster as a player to watch. In the words of Irving, they all “really bring something special to the table.’’ While Irving has expressed his distaste for the term, “Big 3,’’ things will certainly be a bit easier for the Celtics if their “Big 3’’ plays up to its potential.
Kyrie Irving, point guard: Unlike last year’s go-around, Irving will be healthy for the start of Boston’s postseason run. Throughout the regular season, Irving has been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to compete on “the highest level,’’ and he’ll finally get his shot.
Gordon Hayward, forward: Hayward, also making his first playoff appearances in a Celtics uniform, is continuing to make strides in the recovery process. His aggression and comfort level have correlated with success, generating confidence for the future. When he shoots better than 50 percent from the field, the Celtics are 21-3. When he scores 14 or more points, they’re 21-5.
Al Horford, forward: A defensive anchor and an offensive facilitator, the Celtics are simply better when Horford is on the floor.
The Pacers will be without their All-Star point guard Victor Oladipo, who suffered a season-ending injury in January. In his absence, Indiana finished the season 5-16 against the 15 other playoff teams.
The Celtics, too, will be without a core member of their lineup, as shooting guard Marcus Smart suffered an oblique tear in Boston’s penultimate regular-season game. He is expected to return to basketball activities in 4-6 weeks, per the team.
Game 1: Sunday, April 14, 1 p.m. (TD Garden)
Game 2: Wednesday, April 17, 7 p.m. (TD Garden)
Game 3: Friday, April 19, 8:30 p.m. (Bankers Life Fieldhouse)
Game 4: Sunday, April 21, 1 p.m. (Bankers Life Fieldhouse)
Game 5: Wednesday, April 24* (TD Garden)
Game 6: Friday, April 26* (Bankers Life Fieldhouse)
Game 7: Sunday, April 28* (TD Garden)
* = if necessary
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Detroit Pistons: Under the guidance of new coach Mike Budeholzer, the Bucks finished with a league-best 60 wins. MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo put together the best season of his six-year career, averaging 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
Toronto Raptors vs. Orlando Magic: In each of the past three postseasons, the Raptors’ exit came at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now that neither is competing in the playoffs, can the revamped Raptors go the distance? All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard’s should presumably be well-rested, having missed several games this season due to “load management.’’
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets: The 76ers’ starting five could be without center Joel Embiid for at least Game 1, but, with Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Jimmy Butler, the team should still be able to take care of guard D’Angelo Russell and the rebuilt Nets.
Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers: After losing three of their four final regular-season games, former Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Clippers dropped to the eighth seed, giving them a tough test against the two-time defending champion Warriors.
Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio Spurs: Viewed as the most vulnerable top seed in the West, the Nuggets will look to prove their worth against Gregg Popovich’s Spurs. Don’t expect to see much of point guard Isaiah Thomas, however, who was informed in March he had been bumped from Denver’s rotation.
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder: Though the Thunder are technically the underdogs by seeding, they swept the Trail Blazers in their regular-season series, 4-0.
Houston Rockets vs. Utah Jazz: By virtue of a wild final day of the regular season, the Rockets fell to the fourth seed, setting up a matchup against sophomore Donovan Mitchell and the fifth-seeded Jazz. If the Rockets take care of business, MVP candidate James Harden and point guard Chris Paul will have an opportunity, albeit a round early, to avenge last year’s conference finals loss to the Warriors.
If the Celtics advance, they will face the winner of the Bucks-Pistons series, which, barring anything incredibly unusual, will be the Bucks.