WASHINGTON — Now that we’re essentially going to get the Maine Red Claws and some Celtics youngsters in Tuesday’s season finale, the club deciding to sit out seven rotation players, it’s time to give a quick synopsis of a tumultuous regular season that in reality wasn’t as disappointing as it may appear.
The Celtics will finish with at least 48 wins and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, matching up with the Indiana Pacers in the first round. Honestly, the Celtics probably couldn’t have asked for a better matchup.
They were 3-1 against the Pacers in the regular season, the lone Indiana win coming on a Victor Oladipo 3-pointer way back in November. Oladipo tore a right knee tendon in January and won’t be available for the postseason.
Had the Celtics moved up to third, they would have faced a treacherous first-round series with either Brooklyn (2-2 record this season) or Orlando (0-3). Not to say they would lose either of those series, but the Celtics don’t want to be pushed to seven games in the first round with a showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks on the horizon.
The regular-season record could have been much better had the Celtics not blown at least seven games in the final few minutes or blown some very big leads. Some of those losses jarred the Celtics more than they should have.
There was a definite lack of fortitude, and the fact that the team lacked an unquestioned leader was damaging. Kyrie Irving tried to assume the leader role but really didn’t know how, and his heavy-handed approach appeared to turn off some of his teammates, who believed they were being preached to and not mentored.
Irving seems to understand the error of his ways and seems happier with his teammates and with the Celtics situation, even reaffirming his close relationship with coach Brad Stevens. It’s been a turbulent season for Irving, who has displayed all of his emotions and dispositions as the Celtics have soared and skidded this season.
There seems to have been a collective calm among Irving and his teammates as the playoffs have approached. The pair of wins over the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers helped, and so has the ascension of Gordon Hayward, who averaged 18.3 points in four April games. It’s become clear that the Celtics are a better team when Hayward is playing comfortably as a scoring sparkplug off the bench.
Hayward can’t be blamed for the Celtics early-season struggles, but no one envisioned his progress would occur so slowly. He has become more consistent in the past several weeks, playing with more confidence and athleticism.
A healthy and productive Hayward gives the Celtics an element they didn’t have for much of the regular season and offers optimism for the playoffs.
The good news for the Celtics is that other players who have endured bumpy seasons are also on the upswing. Jaylen Brown, for example, is averaging 13.8 points and 42.1 percent 3-point shooting in his past 20 games.
A second unit with Hayward, Brown, Daniel Theis, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris is one of the better groups in the NBA. The concerns are Morris and Rozier, who each went through some difficult second-half stretches. Morris doesn’t shoot with the confidence he had in the first half, and his 3-point percentage is 11 percent lower in the past 22 games.
Rozier is shooting 31 percent from the 3-point line since the All-Star break. The Celtics don’t need Scary Terry from last year’s playoff run, but they need a more consistent Rozier, who makes proper court decisions and shoots selectively.
The Celtics don’t enter the playoffs struggling. They were burned by a pair of four-game losing streaks after the All-Star break but seem to have rectified those issues with a successful West Coast road trip followed by those pair of wins against Indiana and Miami.
The spotlight has dimmed because the Celtics aren’t expected to make it out of the East. The Bucks are the league’s lone team to win 60 or more games this season.
But the Celtics have a chance to finish with the league’s eighth-best record. They have had playoff success against the Bucks and have defended Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo decently since he’s become one of the game’s dominant players.
The Bucks are battling injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, both of whom could miss the first or even the second round. They could be vulnerable against the Celtics in a second-round matchup.
For the Celtics, the chaos has quieted down and the playoffs have arrived. They are in a much better place than they were a few weeks ago. The regular season was definitely a learning experience, but it’s now over.
The Celtics need to forget the seeding, play whom they are scheduled to play, and try to get to the next round.
From there, perhaps they’ll be able to look back on these last several months as a necessary element to their growth.
“Just play our game, be physical, do the little things out there, use our IQ on both ends of the floor, and just play together,” Irving said about the recipe to playoff success.
“Obviously, there are going to be some runs out there in the playoffs, high-level basketball. Guys are going to be making some incredible shots. You just want to limit them to their tendencies and just play well. Every shot is not going to go in, but you’ve just got to be able to be resilient and just have some fun out there. Don’t let the pressure of the moment get the best of you and just go out there and hoop.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.