Now, it’s time for the Boston Celtics to deliver the goods.
The Celtics enter Tuesday’s 2018-19 NBA season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden with incredibly high expectations. A squad that fell minutes short of an NBA Finals berth last season returns virtually the same roster — with a healthy Irving and Hayward thrown in for good measure.
There’s a reason they play the games, though. Head coach Brad Stevens faces a challenge in divvying up minutes on a loaded roster, and the East is no cakewalk, starting with the Celtics’ opening night opponent.
So, how will this season play out? We’ll start with four bold predictions, then give you our projected finish for the 2018-19 Celtics.
1. Boston leads the NBA in bench scoring.
Thanks to Marcus Morris, the Celtics’ second unit already has a killer nickname: B.W.A. (“Bench With Attitude.”) It should be able to back up that moniker, too. Morris, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart should bring an unparalleled fierceness to Boston’s bench, which also could be among the league’s most talented: Morris and Rozier both saw starting-level minutes last season, and backup center Aron Baynes is a legitimate player, as well. Rookie big man Robert Williams is a potential X-factor, while Daniel Theis is an underrated contributor who’s returning from injury. The Celtics should do serious damage against other teams’ second units.
2. Marcus Morris gets traded before the February deadline.
There is a minutes crunch on this roster, and Morris may find himself on the wrong end of it. The 29-year-old’s toughness and scoring ability are coveted qualities, but will he accept playing fewer than 20 minutes per game while taking a backseat to Hayward? If the opportunity arises, expect C’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to at least explore a possible Morris trade that nets a draft pick or a rim-protecting big man to battle East behemoths like Joel Embiid and Jonas Valancunias.
3. Jayson Tatum finishes as the Celtics’ top scorer.
All right, this is a bold one. Irving still is the alpha dog on this roster and Boston’s go-to option in crunch time. But the C’s point guard could play more distributor this season to feed the team’s many mouths — the most talented of which might be Tatum. The 20-year-old blossomed into a star during last season’s playoffs, averaging a team-high 18.5 points per game, and with a full season under his belt, there’s no reason why he can’t take greater strides. Yes, Hayward might cut into Tatum’s minutes, but the Duke product is this team’s best pure scorer outside of Irving and very well could pour in more buckets than his Blue Devil counterpart.
4. The Celtics finish with the NBA’s No. 1 defense.
Only the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz allowed fewer points per game than the Celtics last season — and Boston didn’t even have Hayward, a solid defender who can guard multiple wing positions. The C’s have a stable of athletic, versatile defenders — Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown come to mind — who under the guidance of the defensive-minded Stevens should create nightmares for opposing offenses.
PROJECTED FINISH: 62-20, No. 1 seed in East
Barring injuries or unexpected chemistry issues, there’s no reason why this team can’t reach the 60-win plateau for the first time since the 2008-09 campaign. Boston’s biggest competitors in the East figure to be the 76ers and the Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors, but Stevens’ club has enough juice to fend them off for the No. 1 seed. From there, we’re predicting a Celtics-Sixers rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals, with the C’s taking care of business in six games.
That’s where Boston’s luck will run out though, as the mighty Warriors dispatch the scrappy C’s in a six-game NBA Finals to secure the three-peat.