How different can two successive seasons be? Last year, the Boston Celtics went into the season as the favorite in the Eastern Conference but could not live up to their potential with the players ending up bickering before the nominally best players Kyrie Irving and Al Horford both left the team in the off-season.
Fast forward to this season and expectations were entirely different with the Celtics having a good chance of making a positive surprise. And that has happened as Boston swept Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs and will next face off against reigning champions Toronto in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
A major reason for the Celtics’ return to success has been Kemba Walker, who came over from Charlotte and was leading a team with ambitions for the first time in his professional career. Walker re-unified the embattled locker room and made fans forget Irving with his play on the court.
Unlike Irving, Walker didn’t make any fuss off the court, saying upon his arrival that the Celtics belong to the two “Jays” – Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – and he only wanted to help them achieve the team’s goals.
Walker right away at the start of the season became a major focal point of the offense, but at times four players averaged in double figures and Boston was dangerous because of their versatility. And Tatum’s real breakout this season came at the start of 2020 with a knee injury to Walker, giving the third-year talent more run of play and making him an All-Star for the first time.
As the season advanced, Tatum make the jump to the top man of the homogenous Celtics offense without disrupting it. An improved Gordon Hayward was getting his shots while Brown was doing his catch-and-shoot thing and also driving to the basket. But the Celtics had finally turned truly into Tatum’s team.
Tatum has shown up big time in the playoffs, pouring in 32, 33, 15 and 28 points in the sweep of Philadelphia. There is no patented solution to stop him. He can use his length to get a shot when the game slows down – though he still lacks a bit of consistency. Still, Tatum has the potential to be the most dangerous player in the Eastern Conference, which also means a lethal player who Boston’s next opponents Toronto must stop to be successful.
Another major issue for the Raptors as the Celtics’ next foe is Boston playing effectively on defense as well. Head coach Brad Stevens might not have a real center, but other than Walker, the Celtics are made up almost entirely of long and/or physical wings. The defense also features Daniel Theis, who can hold up physically against nearly every big man but can also use his athleticism to stick with guards on defense.
Whether or not Boston can knock off Toronto and eventually have a fairytale ending in Disney World will rely on two things. One is Walker’s knee as the team lacks a backup point guard with his creativity and quality. The other is the development of Tatum. He is the player who can make this good team a great team.
What a difference a season can make.
by FIVE Magazine #171 – Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics – Text: Ole Frerks