Celtics fans simply can’t decide how critical they should be of the 2017-18 iteration of their beloved team. Boston has had it’s heart broken before, times innumerable. It’s a wearied city, when it comes to wholeheartedly investing in a run for glory. But have all the “Green Teamers” forgotten where their team is at, on its timeline? Boston’s moment is now.
Remember that the Celtics finished at the top of the Eastern Conference, last year, without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. And their only Eastern Conference Finals win came with Isaiah Thomas on the bench.
Since the Hayward injury, in Game 1, Celtics fans have vacillated between calling this group of guys the best team in the league, and granting the C’s impunity for the remainder of the season.
It’s understandable for an ambitious fan-base to be momentarily bamboozled by such a huge setback. What’s downright unforgivable is all the lingering uncertainty, surrounding the expectations for this team.
One can hear the whispering of excuse-makers, around every corner.
Make no mistake, this is not a “bye year” for the Celtics. 1st-place in the Eastern Conference - on paper, Boston is that formidable of a team, even without Gordon Hayward.
Let this be a preemptive strike against all of the scapegoat salesmen who are waiting for the Celtics to falter. Sure, they may not be postured to win an NBA Championship. But Boston is still in a position to make it further in the postseason than they did last year.
Adaptation and Evolution
What has fans so confused is how rapidly the identity of the Celtics has mutated.
Isaiah Thomas, New England's favorite underdog, is gone. Let him go. The Celtics are mathematically better off without him (and his deteriorating hip).
Thomas was supposed to be replaced by a newfangled Frankenstein of superstars, headed by Hayward and Irving. That didn’t exactly go according to plan.
Still, it is not time for fans to throw in the towel - far from it. Gordon Hayward may make this team, but his injury does not break this team.
The preordained leader of the 2017-18 Celtics has always been Kyrie Irving.
He’s already illustrated his ability to take over close games in the playoffs. No, Irving is not colloquially referred to as “Mr. 4th Quarter”. But he should be. After all, the ultimate 4th Quarter is the postseason.
Kyrie has competed in 3 consecutive NBA Playoffs, dating back to the 2014-15 season. During this window of time, he has averaged an impressive 23.9 PPG.
In the 2017 NBA Finals, Irving put up a cumulative 78 PTS, in Games 3 and 4 alone. He would go on to have a phenomenal series, scoring a career-best 25.9 postseason PPG.
Looking at Isaiah Thomas’ numbers, over that same 3 year stretch, the disparity between his and Irving's output becomes real.
Thomas averages over a point per game less than Irving, at 22.6 PPG, in the postseason. Despite the lasting impression that he made on Boston fans, his production invariably decreased in the playoffs, every single year.
That is not the portrait of a franchise player.
As well as upgrading their superstar department, Boston has also upgraded their ancillary players. Guys like Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley, have been supplanted by more impressive counterparts.
An evolved Jaylen Brown gives the C’s a guard-forward hybrid who can hold his own in the paint. Brown can also induce an attrition in the defense, with his combination of hustle and muscle.
The additions go far beyond the guard positions.
Only a maniac would prefer Kelly Olynyk over Marcus Morris, or even Aron Baynes. Both of these big men have helped to alleviate the rebounding issue that has plagued Boston over the past few seasons. Baynes especially, who possesses a great penchant for using his size down low, as opposed to the contact shy Kelly Olynyk.
It's not even debatable - the Celtics are much better than they were last year. Anything less than a 6 or 7 game Eastern Conference Finals appearance would be a severe underachievement.
This is an upper-echelon squad of NBA players. So if Boston stumbles, do not conveniently attribute it to the absence of Gordon Hayward. They're too well rounded for that to be an acceptable argument.
As they’re constituted, the Celtics should be expected to go on the greatest postseason run of Brad Stevens’ tenure.
They'll look to extend their winning streak to 10 games, when they go up against the Lakers, on Wednesday night.
- Photo: (Jason Miller/Getty Images)