The Boston Celtics got within one win of the NBA Finals last season despite losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward on opening night and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving before the playoffs. With those stars expected to be healthy and returning to a loaded roster, and with the player who almost single-handedly eliminated them now occupying a different conference, the Celtics are being tipped by many as the team to beat in the East, and the favorites to be the first team not led by LeBron James to represent the conference in the NBA Finals since 2010.
Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown is not shying away from those elevated expectations.
“Oh, we’re getting to the Finals,” Brown said when asked about his team’s chances for the upcoming season during a recent visit to the “Pull Up with C.J. McCollum” podcast, co-hosted by the Portland Trail Blazers star and Yahoo Sports’ own Jordan Schultz. “No question about it.”
After stepping confidently into the starting lineup and a featured role last season, filling the voids left by Hayward and later Irving en route to averaging an efficient 18 points per game in the playoffs, Brown stepped even more confidently into his assessment of his team’s spot in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. During a wide-ranging discussion on a variety of topics — Brown’s decision to enter the NBA without an agent, the ways in which players continue to explore interests and expand influence beyond the court, the dangers of gambling on the team plane and trying to live a veteran’s lifestyle on a rookie contract, his experience with meditation, and more — Brown made no bones about his belief that the Celtics have everything they need to make it to the championship round … and that that would’ve been true even if LeBron hadn’t pulled up stakes and headed west:
McCollum: You guys had a very good season last year. Kyrie [Irving] played 50-plus games and, unfortunately, wasn’t able to play in the playoffs. There’s a lot of whispers about you guys being the face of the Eastern Conference going forward. Obviously, the 76ers are good, the Toronto Raptors are good, there’s a lot of depth in the Eastern Conference.
But with LeBron moving to the Western Conference, do you guys feel like you’re getting to the Finals this coming season? And what type of rotation do you think Coach [Brad Stevens] is going to put in place? He’s got a lot to work with at the wing position. He’s got very good guards. You guys have some flexible forwards who can guard one through five. How do you think the roster, the rotation’s going to unfold this season, and do you think you guys are getting to the Finals?
Brown: Oh, we’re getting to the Finals. No question about it. But I hate how everybody’s like, ‘Oh, LeBron’s gone in the East.’ I know he did have a stronghold on the East for the last [eight] years, but he barely got up out of there this year. And our mindset was like, “Man, he’s not beating us again.” That’s what our mindset was. Like, we had a bunch of young guys who could really play, and we didn’t back down from nobody. And a lot of teams did. A lot of teams got caught up into this, and caught up into that, and we just came out and played basketball. That’s what we do.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if we are the favorite in the East or if we’re predicted to win 10 games in the East. You’ve got to come out and play. Simple. […] But at the same time, expectation levels are there, and we have expectation levels for ourselves. So it’s important for us to stay grounded and just continue to play ball, continue to play the way we played this past season — sharing the ball, want everybody to get off, and everything will take care of itself.
Brown’s got every reason to be confident in Boston’s chances. Even amid the injury issues that removed Hayward (who, in case you forgot, averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 47/40/84 shooting splits and made the All-Star team in his final season in Utah) and Irving (who had averaged a team-high 24.4 points per game on similarly scorching 49/41/89 shooting splits before going down with a knee injury) from the equation, the Celtics just kept humming, riding the combination of a lockdown defense led by All-Star center Al Horford and chaos-agent tone-setter Marcus Smart, coach Brad Stevens’ tactical brilliance and the ahead-of-the-curve offensive contributions of the 21-year-old Brown and 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Were it not for a titanic 7-for-39 cold snap from beyond the 3-point arc — something that seemed to be contagious in Games 7 this spring — Boston may well have been the team trying to keep the Golden State Warriors from repeating. This year, with virtually the entire postseason roster returning — save for the replacements of veteran big man Greg Monroe and spark-plug guard Shane Larkin with intriguing first-round pick Robert Williams and EuroLeague standout Brad Wanamaker — to go with a healthy Irving and Hayward, the Celtics may well have gone into the season as the betting favorite to take the East even if LeBron hadn’t abdicated his throne.
The road to the Finals won’t be easy, of course. The Raptors, last year’s No. 1 seed, have gone all-in on a championship push by trading for MVP-caliber two-way game-changer Kawhi Leonard. The 76ers (whom Boston knocked off in five games in the second round of the 2018 playoffs) struck out on their top targets this summer, but still return the remarkable young core of MVP hopeful Joel Embiid, reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and a hopefully rejuvenated Markelle Fultz. The Milwaukee Bucks (whom Boston eliminated in last season’s first round) still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, arguably the best player in the conference, and could take a big step forward under the guidance of new head coach Mike Budenholzer. Other contenders could emerge; Stevens’ team will face stiff challenges along the way.
On paper, though, the Celtics look like a juggernaut in the making — an enviable collection of young, tough, gifted, athletic and smart players, capable of playing big and small, fast and slow, choking out your offense and lighting up the scoreboard. They’ve got more options than just about any other team in the league, and that gives them a rare and special opportunity. Brown, for his part, things they’re ready to seize it.
“Like, we’ve got a lot — we’ve got a lot, a lot of talent on this team,” he said. “We’ve got some real good mindsets, and it’s a pleasure playing with them all. But we have to be on one page if we want to be successful.”
Hat-tip to Jay King of The Athletic.
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