Chris Forsberg

Five Celtics storylines to watch over final 25-game push

How can Boston best position itself for a deep playoff run?

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The Boston Celtics have been downright surgical in their approach during this eight-game win streak. The team has relentlessly hunted matchup advantages, all while the opposition is left wondering exactly which of Boston’s core players is their own mismatch on the other end (hint: there isn’t one). 

Boston’s offensive versatility has been on full display coming out of the All-Star break. In Chicago, the Celtics passed a scoring baton by quarter, with Derrick White lighting the fuse, Jaylen Brown taking it for the second frame, and Jayson Tatum ripping the game open in the third quarter. In New York, the Celtics spent the first half dominating inside the arc, then built a 20-point lead on the strength of 3-point shots in the third.

Both nights, when the Celtics turned up the intensity on the defensive end, the game was pretty much over.

The result is not only a hefty lead atop the East but over the rest of the NBA field. Boston is up eight games on its nearest East rival, and even the West-leading Timberwolves are five games in the rearview entering Sunday’s play. Boston has quietly taken over the top spot in offensive rating (121.2) and ranks third in defensive rating (110.7). A +10.5 net rating is 2.4 points better than the next closest team (Oklahoma City, +8.1) and nearly double that of the next best team in the East (Cleveland, +5.4).

All of which makes you wonder what exactly Boston can find for motivation over the final 25 games of the season. The No. 1 seed in the East is all but locked up with seven weeks left on the regular-season calendar. We’ll spend more time obsessing about the play-in bracket, and the 4-5 matchup, with eyes on Boston’s potential early playoff opponents.

But here are five areas we’ll also be watching over the final 25 games as the Celtics look to pack this regular-season domination and carry it into the games that matter most:

1. Starters dial it in

Boston’s starting five of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, Kristaps Porzingis, and Jrue Holiday is outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions in 476 minutes together over 29 games. Among the 27 five-man lineups with at least 200 minutes played together this season, that ranks seventh in the NBA.

One of the hallmarks of the 2022 Celtics that steamrolled teams at the finish line of the 2021-22 season was how dominant the starters were, particularly on the defensive end. Boston’s starting group was a wrecking ball out of the gates but needs to tap back into some of that mojo.

Yes, we’re admittedly being greedy considering Boston’s overall success. But just look at these splits:

It speaks volumes that Boston’s starters have come back to earth this much and yet the Celtics just keep winning. It also says something about the way the team has found sub lineups that work and gotten a nice boost from the bench contributors.

But the Celtics starters simply need to get back to firing on all cylinders, particularly given how much time they’ll log together at the start and finish of games this spring.

2. Awards watch

Individual awards may not be the top of anyone’s priority list in Boston. Everyone seems locked into the bigger prize of Banner 18. But it’d be foolish to suggest that they don’t matter at all. A lot of ink will be spilled in the coming weeks about whether team members deserve some regular-season hardware considering just how far ahead of the field Boston resides.

Tatum’s MVP candidacy will be a consistent topic. While some talking heads are slowly embracing the “best player on the best team” criteria, Boston’s upcoming slate could be the best pathway to boosting Tatum’s MVP case.

The Celtics open March with a visit from Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, and Tatum always gets up for that battle. An intriguing road trip follows that includes a potential narrative-shifting showdown with Nikola Jokic in Denver on March 7. Tatum visits Kevin Durant and the Suns two nights later. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Oklahoma City Thunder visit Boston on April 3. That’s a lot of marquee matchups for Tatum to showcase how he’s able to impact winning beyond scoring output.

Kendrick Perkins explains why, if the season ended today, Jayson Tatum would get his MVP vote

He doesn’t need to have loud scoring nights, but if he positively affects winning and shows off all the ways he impacts the game beyond scoring, including on the defensive end, it will really make voters think hard about his candidacy.

The Coach of the Year trophy almost will certainly land out West, and there are strong cases to be made for Minnesota’s Chris Finch and OKC's Mark Daigneault (a Leominster guy!). But Mazzulla has to at least be in the conversation if Boston is five-plus games better than the field.

The Celtics should have a strong case to land multiple players on All-NBA (Tatum will be there; will Brown or Porzingis join him?) and All-Defense (does the Stock Watch backcourt of White and Holiday earn a collective nod?)

Brad Stevens seems like a lock for Executive of the Year after the offseason moves that have entrenched Boston atop the league.

3. Will Xavier Tillman or others make a rotation push?

Four remaining back-to-backs suggests at least eight games that the Celtics will rest their veteran bigs in Porzingis and Al Horford. There will be plenty of other opportunities to downshift the core players of this team given Boston’s lead atop the conference.

Will Xavier Tillman make a push for rotation minutes? At the very least, his arrival should promote healthy competition with someone like Luke Kornet, who has only cemented his status as the ninth man on this team with his steady play and energy-inducing celebrations.

Tillman ultimately might find himself in the Mike Muscala role: a midseason import who helps the team navigate the second half of the season but might not have enough time to generate the chemistry and trust necessary to crack a playoff rotation. The Celtics have the ability to retain Tillman after the season and let him compete for a bigger role in future seasons.

But it’s a credit to how good Horford, Sam Hauser, and Payton Pritchard have been that you feel confident in Boston’s projected top eight in the playoffs.

Hauser and Pritchard have to keep making shots on the big stage and we’ll see how they hold up defensively against bigger teams. But they’ve both consistently impacted winning this season. Horford remains ageless and always seems to get a jolt when the postseason arrives.

4. The Denver rematch

Maybe it’s foolish to focus on a single game in a 25-game stretch. The Celtics have a bunch of intriguing matchups over the next seven weeks. And yet one stands out above all others.

Boston’s trek to Denver to play the defending champs is the game we most want to see. The Celtics walked away from that loss in Boston on January 19 feeling really good about their late-game process, even if it didn’t translate in winning a game with a playoff-like intensity.

The Celtics are 13-2 since that loss. Their only defeats were to Los Angeles teams — a clunker against the Clippers and a PTSD-inducing dud against the star-less Lakers.  Since that game, the Celtics have been dialed in to a new level of hunting mismatches and it’s a big reason for their overall success.

The rematch, at altitude, will give Boston a chance to avenge a narrow defeat. The Celtics have saved some of their best efforts for those sorts of games, like the rematch against the Timberwolves in Boston that produced an overtime thriller

If both sides are healthy, the Denver game deserves the biggest circle on the remaining calendar. Two games with the Bucks, considering Boston's lopsided loss up there in January, are admittedly intriguing, too, even as Milwaukee stumbles its way through the regular season.

5. Health above all else

We don’t need much explanation here. If the Celtics are healthy, they are the title favorites. If they’re not, the path is murkier. 

There’s no way to bubble wrap your team for 25 games, nor should you desire to. The Celtics will pick spots to ramp players up and throttle them down. Boston has operated with heavy caution with the likes of Porzingis this season. There will be other opportunities over the final 25 where Mazzulla should throw the keys to lesser-used reserves and implore them to get to the finish line of games.

There is a balance here. Players need rest but also need to be ready for the spike in playoff minutes. In that first Denver meeting, you could tell Porzingis was running on fumes after expending so much energy in the first half. So the Celtics have to pick spots to ensure his health but also find games to stretch out those lungs. That’s why it wasn’t particularly surprising to see Tatum log a playoff-like 43-plus minutes in New York on Saturday night.

The Celtics have already positioned themselves for success having firmly entrenched themselves atop the East. Health is paramount over the final 25, but so too is making sure this team is firing on all cylinders and ready for what the green hope is a long playoff grind.

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