Wednesday, April 10, 2019

4 things Celtics need to succeed in 2019 Playoff run

The Celtics (49-33) concluded the 2018-19 season Tuesday night in Washington D.C. with a 116-110 win over the Wizards.

For a team that was projected to top the Eastern Conference and potentially reach the 60-win plateau,  the regular season didn't pan out the way most anticipated it would. There were plenty of ups and downs throughout the Celtics' roller-coaster campaign, still, there's plenty to look forward to as Brad Stevens gears up for his fifth NBA playoff run with momentum on his side and potential to be fulfilled.

Here are four things Celtics fans have to look forward to ahead of Boston's first-round matchup against the Pacers.

1. More shots for Gordon Hayward

If you look at his last five-game sample size, you'll see Hayward is heading into the postseason with season-high numbers in nearly every statistical category compared to his regular season averages. His 18.4 points while shooting 64.4 percent from the floor, including 40 percent from behind the arc, gives Stevens something he hasn't had all year long -- another 18-plus point scorer.

Jayson Tatum's sophomore campaign didn't blossom the way most anticipated it would, following a terrific playoff run but because of Hayward's recent offensive emergence there won't be a whole lot of pressure on Tatum to produce at a high level. What's most impressive about Hayward's scoring of late is his field goal attempts -- a middling 10 shots per game.

If the Celtics are going to make a deep playoff push, this needs to change. Stevens will encourage Hayward to take more shots. With 15 postseason games under his belt, Hayward hasn't had an extensive playoff career but his last run to the Western Conference Semifinals back in 2017, where he averaged 23.2 points on 16.5 field goal attempts exemplified that Hayward doesn't need as many attempts as most to become a 20-plus point scorer, just a few more per game against the Pacers and he'll be on his way.

2. Brad Stevens managing his second unit

It's time for Stevens to start shortening rotations and cutting minutes. This is the playoffs we're talking about, which means no more figuring out lineups while "trying to find out who he can rely on," said the head coach less than three weeks ago. Stevens should start by reducing Terry Rozier's minutes (22.7) and then go from there.

As much as the Celtics would love to see Rozier relive the 'Scary Terry' nights of spring 2018, Stevens has to keep a short leash on his backup point guard. If he's clocked in over 15 minutes without much production on both ends, Rozier should be yanked off the floor and replaced by a starter.

Boston will be facing a tough, physical, defensive-minded Pacers team that can get the best out of the Celtics if Stevens isn't careful in keeping up with his player rotations.

3. Playoff Al Horford

Coming off of arguably his best regular season as a member of the Celtics, Horford didn't show any signs of slowing down throughout his last eight games. In the midst of a six-game streak of scoring 19-plus points and grabbing 6-plus rebounds, Horford reminded everyone of just how tough the Celtics are to beat when Horford is playing at such a high level.

His defense is and has always been a guarantee; he's the anchor. But we can now also expect to see Horford's offense shine through via open 3-pointers, pick-and-roll sets with Kyrie Irving and post-up moves in the paint against Myles Turner -- Indiana's talented and toughest defender -- in the opening round of the playoffs.

4. Kyrie Irving's dominance 

This is the time of year Irving plays for. He's reminded us a plethora of times throughout the regular season and now the All-Star point guard returns to the postseason for the first time in two years with a whole lot to prove.

With plenty of doubt surrounding the Celtics' chances of reaching the NBA Finals, Irving will build his playoff resume in a big way. For the first time in his career, he will enter the postseason as the appointed leader of a playoff team and from a statistical standpoint it will undoubtedly be his best performance.

Irving has never entered a postseason where he didn't reach the NBA Finals, he did it three straight times in Cleveland alongside LeBron James and still managed to average 26 points while shooting at a 46.8 percent clip in 2017. There's no reason why Irving shouldn't be able to match that output or top it this time around heading into his fourth postseason run with the biggest chip he's ever had sitting on his shoulder.

Josue Pav√≥n

Photo used is courtesy of the Boston Globe

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