The season began like so many for the Boston Celtics with the goal being to go as deep into the playoffs as possible.
And with the season in full restart mode now, a similar mindset exists. But things seem different now.
This team has always carried itself with a level of confidence that at times seemed to defy the reality of where it truly stood in the NBA's pecking order.
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But with this year’s unprecedented circumstances in Orlando, Fla., the always-confident Celtics seem even more convinced that they are capable of doing more than just being one of the last teams standing.
They believe they can win it all.
“I think that’s the mentality you have to have,” said Boston’s Jayson Tatum. “I’ve never been on a team in my life, whether it was high school or college, since I’ve been on the Celtics, that we should just settle for third place. That’s why we grind, that’s why we play, to be the last team standing.”
But winning a title, regardless of the circumstances, is never easy.
So what will it take for the Celtics to bring home Banner 18?
Healthy Kemba Walker
Kyrie Irving’s decision to sign with Brooklyn left a tremendous void on the Celtics’ roster, a void that Kemba Walker has done an admirable job of filling.
Walker, an All-Star starter in February, is averaging 21.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game this season. However, a sore left knee has limited his impact since the All-Star break.
The thinking for now is that Walker’s knee needs to get stronger in order for him to be at or close to his peak level of play when the playoffs roll around.
If he’s playing at that level, the Celtics will become an extremely tough out for any team in the East.
Jayson Tatum’s ascension continues
Few — if any — players benefited more from being a first-time All-Star in February than Jayson Tatum.
Since then, Tatum has been on a scoring binge seldom seen from a player so young while leading a title-contending team.
His 29.9 points per game since the All-Star break trails only Washington’s Bradley Beal (36.5 points) and Lakers star LeBron James (30.0).
A significant chunk of Tatum’s scoring has come from 3-point range where he has shot 46.8 percent since the break, which ranks third in the NBA among players with four or more made per game.
If he’s capable of playing at a similar level while still being an above-average defender, Boston would have that lethal postseason scoring threat that we’ve seen of late — and is vital to a team’s championship aspirations.
The top scorer for the last three teams to win an NBA title averaged at least 28.5 points per game.
Playing both ends of the floor
Like most coaches, Brad Stevens is always striving for his team to play at an elite level offensively and defensively. If you look at Boston’s numbers for the season, they’ve been among the best at achieving that goal.
Boston’s offensive rating ranks fourth in the league, and their defensive rating is fifth overall. The only teams in the league that can boast such lofty rankings are the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, who are the top teams record-wise in the Eastern and Western Conference, respectively.
But the Celtics don’t come into the season reboot playing particularly well at either end of the floor.
Since the All-Star break, Boston’s offensive rating slipped to 14th overall in the league. And their once-elite defense has taken a step or two back as well, ranked ninth in the NBA since the All-Star break.
Ideally the Celtics will get back on track at both ends of the floor. But for them to win it all, they need to be elite at least on one end of the floor.
Catching a break or two
When folks look back on that Celtics team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017 as the top seed in the East, what’s often overlooked was how that team could have easily been bounced in the first round by then-eighth seeded Chicago.
Boston fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, but was able to rally back to win it after Bulls guard/former Celtic Rajon Rondo suffered a series-ending thumb injury.
No matter how deep or talented a team may be, the journey towards a championship tends to include some unplanned breaks along the way.
Boston will need a few of those, for sure.
The Celtics have a roster full of talented players with an elite level of versatility. But Gordon Hayward’s all-around game really stands out when healthy.
And as we’ve seen for most of this season, a healthy Hayward is hell to deal with for most teams. Because not only can he score from all points on the floor, but he’s also a better-than-average playmaker and a sneaky-good rebounder.
His numbers this season bear this out.
- 17.3 points
- 6.5 rebounds
- 4.1 assists
And he’s providing this level of production while being Boston’s (at best) third option behind Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker (A case could be made that he’s also behind Jaylen Brown, too).
Hayward’s ability to impact the game in so many different areas is what makes him such a valuable asset for Boston, particularly when the playoffs roll around.
Because if we’re talking about Boston getting to the NBA Finals, chances are pretty good that we’ll be talking about the impact that a healthy Hayward has had on Boston’s postseason success.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Bucks, which begins Friday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.