Utilizing a well-deserved week off to practice, re-calibrate, and mentally prepare for the strenuous journey of a long-awaited playoff run, the Boston Celtics have already set the bar heading into their first-round series.

Before Opening Night in October, the front office delivered, introducing Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday to an already-talented lineup. The team committed a record-setting $303 million to retain Jaylen Brown and expressed confidence in Payton Pritchard via a four-year, $30 million raise. Guard Derrick White was promoted to a full-time starter position and nearly every concern that hampered the Celtics last season — depth, turnovers, maintaining large leads — faded relatively quickly for a newly-formed core.

Boston reclaimed ownership of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 14, holding onto the mountaintop spot for over 140 days before clinching an NBA-best record (64-18). Great, commendable and more than worthy of a pat on the back. But this isn’t uncharted territory for the Tatum-Brown-led Celtics, it’s just the latest sequel to an ongoing quest for (finally) getting the job done and earning undisputed validation.

While the Celtics await their first-round opponent — the winner of Friday night’s Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls Play-In Tournament matchup — there’s plenty to consider before Boston takes the floor on Sunday afternoon.

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Here are three completely random, but relevant thoughts:

1. It would be embarrassing if the Thunder made a deeper playoff run
Granted, it’s harsh, but no less true.

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were the biggest surprise in the Western Conference. They finished as the NBA’s other No. 1 seed at 57-25, beating out the reigning finals champion Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Los Angeles Clippers. That’s no easy feat, especially for the league’s third-youngest roster (24.1 years old). In fact, among the four-youngest squads in the West, the Thunder were the only team to reach playoff contention.

Why does this have anything to do with the Celtics?

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Well, just four years ago, then-rookie Tatum and second-year veteran Brown were in a similar position. Boston was the sixth-youngest roster at the time (25.1 years old) and fell just a win shy of overcoming a David vs. Goliath battle against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. Reaching the conference finals without then-veteran leaders Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics re-introduced themselves as true contenders — for the first time since the Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett days.

Fast forward to 2024. Boston’s clinched a playoff spot for the following six consecutive seasons, appearing in the conference finals three times, reaching the finals once, and winning zero titles. The pressure is already on, however, with a young and hungry Thunder team making noise in the West, it wouldn’t be a good look if Oklahoma City advanced further than Boston.

Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault was voted the NBACA’s Coach of the Year, questionably beating out Boston’s Joe Mazzulla. That perception of the two playbook head honchos could be backed depending on how far the Celtics and Thunder go respectively.

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2. Kristaps Porzingis can make (or break) Boston’s hunt for Banner 18
After a three-year breakout with the New York Knicks followed by six modest seasons with the Dallas Mavericks and Washington Wizards, Porzingis had accumulated just 10 games of playoff experience — never making it beyond the first round.

Boston isn’t Washington, Dallas, or New York, therefore, a first-round exit wouldn’t suffice for what needs to be accomplished in the next few weeks.

“Best believe we’re gonna show up when we need to,” Porzingis declared after Boston crumbled against the shorthanded Knicks last Thursday.

Porzingis was limited to 57 games as the team took a wise and cautious approach when playing the 28-year-old. But when on the floor alongside Tatum, Brown, and the rest of Boston’s starters, Porzingis has proven himself to be the league’s best No. 3 option. He averaged 20.1 points, leading the Celtics in rebounds (7.2) and blocks (1.9), scoring from just about anywhere and everywhere on the floor. Porzingis recorded career-bests from the field (51.6%) and 2-point range (60.6%) while shooting 37.5% from three.

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When Porzingis plays inside, it adds a critical component to Boston’s offense that can’t be replaced. Before Porzingis suited up with the Celtics, the front office wisely signed him to a two-year, $60 million extension, keeping the 2018 All-Star in Boston (at least) until 2026.

Having never undergone a deep playoff run does pose the obvious question of concern: can Porzingis sustain the physical toll of the postseason? Granted, we’ve never seen it, making the skepticism justified. But… Porzingis hasn’t played on a roster as stacked as Boston, which offers interchangeable rotations in Mazzulla’s back pocket that’ll go a long way.

3. There’s only one way for Joe Mazzulla to put the Ime Udoka comparisons to rest once and for all
It’s inevitable, however, completely in the hands of the Celtics to expel the constant Mazzulla-Udoka debate that hit the surface as soon as the now-Houston Rockets head coach showed the door out of Boston in 2022.

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Mazzulla made a handful of mistakes during last season’s playoff, whether it’d be poor usage of the team’s timeouts, not inserting White in late-game minutes, or not preparing the locker room to show some killer instinct. Granted, getting thrown into the fire of being promoted to head coach with little time to prepare in the preseason wasn’t the ideal situation for Mazzulla, but this season isn’t last. The leeway is gone and the expectations aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

With a full season of experience as head coach, Mazzulla made several key improvements. He made strides in re-establishing the team’s defensive identity, getting the Celtics to rank second in the NBA in defensive rating (110.6) — which wasn’t the case in 2022-23. Mazzulla preached, exercised, and got the roster to buy into an open-minded approach. Whether it was implementing NFL-inspired defensive schemes or promoting sacrifice over everything else, Mazzulla’s influence became abundantly clear.

Even before the playoffs, Mazzulla has channeled his inner Bill Belichick, going above and beyond during pre-first-round practices.

“Just continuing to get better,” Mazzulla told reporters Wednesday, per CLNS Media. “Obviously we didn’t get on the floor with our guys in a while so it was a huge cardio day. Working on some stuff and then today just continuing to get better at our execution, our if-then scenarios, and reads so today we just wanted to be a better team, a smarter team and just keep working at that.”

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Featured image via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images