At 41-18, the Boston Celtics sit in third place in the Eastern Conference with the home stretch of the season on the horizon. After a red-hot start, injury-plagued Boston cooled down after Christmas but have since started to right the ship, moving within striking distance of the No. 2 seed.
The Celtics are a half-game behind the Toronto Raptors in the standings, but they sit 10 games behind the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. The C’s will need to make a few adjustments if they’re going to come out of the East and contend for a title this summer.
Here are the keys to the Celtics’ 2020 NBA title chances.
Gordon Hayward Needs to Be More Consistent
Speaking of Hayward, there is no one on the roster who has had more pressure on them to perform at a high level. After suffering a season-ending injury during his first regular-season game with the team, the veteran had a hard time getting back to his previous All-Star form during the second year of his $128 million contract.
Despite his slow start with the team, Hayward has quietly become one of the more reliable players as of late.
Interestingly enough, Hayward’s recent burst has come while either young, budding wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been out of the lineup. If the C’s are going to get over the hump, they’ll need Hayward to produce consistently throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs.
Get [and Stay] Healthy
The 2017-18 Celtics were nicknamed the “Hospital Celtics” as their depleted roster limped its way to the Eastern Conference Finals and *almost* made it past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for what would have been the team’s first trip back to the NBA Finals since 2010. This year’s team has been eerily similar in its unfortunate ability to keep names on the injury report.
There was Marcus Smart’s eye infection, Kemba Walker’s neck injury, Hayward’s broken hand, Kanter’s hip contusion and Jayson Tatum’s groin strain. This is not even including the injuries to Boston’s young players like Robert Williams, Romeo Langford and even Tacko Fall.
Boston has been able to grind out games and find ways to win, but with injuries being a key reason why the Celtics failed to make it back to the Finals just two seasons ago, it’s best to not have a complete repeat.
Play More Complete Games
One flaw of this year’s team has been its tendency to sleepwalk through quarters and sometimes entire halves of games–either leaving them too far behind to claw back or causing them to give up sizable leads.
In their losses to the Bucks and Spurs earlier this season, the Celtics fell behind 16 and 12 points, respectively, in the first quarter. In two out of their three losses against the 76ers, they held leads going into halftime before collapsing in the second half.
The team’s commanding victories, like the 35-point win over New Orleans on Jan. 11 and the 32-point win over the Lakers on Jan. 20, have shown glimpses of its high ceiling. Wins like the one over Miami Tuesday show that the team is much better than even its record suggests. In that game, head coach Brad Stevens trimmed his rotation down to just eight players, essentially sending a message that he will only lean on players who are bringing their A-game, which will be key moving forward.
In the past, the Celtics have had an issue with showing up only for the big games and playing sluggishly against less-threatening teams, but if they are going to contend for a title any time soon, they must show up every single night, on both ends of the floor.
Jayson Tatum & Jaylen Brown Continue to Produce
Tatum earned a much-deserved nod to the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, and while Jaylen Brown didn’t get selected, he’s come on strong recently. Despite early-season injuries, both are averaging more than 20 points per game this season and have made their presence felt on the defensive end as part of the league’s third-best defense.
While many may pit the two young wings against one another, the key is that Boston is better with both rather than choosing between the two. Both have had significant turnarounds, especially Tatum, who is coming off a slower-than-expected sophomore season but put up a career-high 39 points against the Charlotte Hornets back in December.
“I guess we feed off each other,” Brown said of Tatum earlier this season. “Kind of different games, kind of opposite, but it makes sense, like Fire and Ice.”