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NBA Daily: In a Revamped East, Can the Celtics Still Compete?

The Eastern Conference title contenders made big moves at the trade deadline. Shane Rhodes breaks down how it will impact the Celtics.

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First, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired Tobias Harris.

Next, the Milwaukee Bucks added Nikola Mirotic.

Then, the Toronto Raptors traded for Marc Gasol.

And, with their sights set on a potential offseason blockbuster, Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics stood pat as they watched their main competition drastically improve at the February 7 Trade Deadline.

At 35-20 — good for fourth place in the East — a blockbuster wasn’t a necessity for the Celtics. The hodgepodge of battle-tested veterans and fresh-legged youth that make up the Celtics roster has shown they are a force to be reckoned with. Boston is 23-10 since December 1, one of the best records in the NBA over that span, and should continue to do so down the stretch.

But an Eastern Conference arms race, one that they were unable to get involved in, may have been the worst possible outcome for the Celtics in a season that already hasn’t gone their way.

Boston had, on paper, one of the best rosters in the NBA at the start of the season. Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward were All-Star caliber players, while Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier were a talented trio that had carried themselves to within a few victories of the NBA’s apex last season. Healthy and on the cusp of it all, Boston was projected to reach even greater heights this season.

But that’s why they play the games, isn’t it?

The team flopped out of the gate to the tune of a 10-10 start. Hayward has looked like a shell of himself as he has struggled to return from a devastating leg injury. Rozier has regressed in his transition back to a reserve role. And, after a preseason declaration, Irving has seemingly made an about-face on his commitment to the team beyond this season. Things have certainly improved since; the defense has consistently looked like one of the best units in the NBA; the offense has turned things around after a dreadful start; and Brown, after some early-season hand injury, has almost completely rebounded to the player he was last postseason. But, with the infusion of star power brought on by the deadline, can this Boston squad still compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy?

The short answer? Yes, but Brad Stevens and Co. will need things to break right in order to do so.

To start, the bench must find some consistency. They have impressed at times, but there have been more than a few games where the starting unit has put them ahead, only for the bench to let a big lead slip away. That can’t happen in the postseason when the best are going up against the best and any weakness will get exploited by the opposition.

Next up, Stevens has to step up and take control of his own team. While he is lauded for his after-timeout magics, Stevens has struggled in several areas this season; too often the offense will get bogged down, ball movement will cease, and it is on Stevens to better scheme his players into opportunities for success. He has to learn when to rein in his locker room at times as well. Irving’s comments about his upcoming free agency, combined with the constant trade chatter and individual agendas or egos on the team, have already created some public scuffles. To this point, Stevens has given little more than a shrug and the occasional stock answer. If this team wants to compete for an NBA title, he has to do better.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Hayward must find himself on the court. There have been flashes of the pre-injury forward, but far too often Hayward will come out flat and finish games with a less-than-stellar stat line. His passing has been exceptional and his defense adequate, even good at times, but the aggression that made him an offensive weapon for the Utah Jazz has been, understandably, non-existent with the Celtics. When forced into contact, Hayward has no drive behind him and, more often than not, will kick the ball out instead of taking it to the basket. That lack of energy has spread to his perimeter game as well – Hayward, who shot 39.8 percent from three in his last season with the Jazz, has on just 31.1 percent of his deep shots this season – and it will continue to affect him until he gets himself right.

If, come April, Hayward has recaptured that self-confidence, he could represent an addition greater than anyone moved at the trade deadline.

Mix all of that in with a little bit of luck in the standings and this Boston roster should be more than capable of living up to some fairly high expectations. The lack of an addition at the deadline was a gamble by Ainge – one that could drastically alter their future outlook – but it may very well pay off if the Celtics can put it all together down the stretch as they bunker down for their next postseason run.

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