Bulpett: After crazy summer, Celtics now pose major threat
CLEVELAND — The conversation was had with Amir Johnson in Philadelphia. The conversation was had with any number of NBA followers in the ice cream section at Market Basket, Stop & Shop or Shaw’s (in case my primary-care physician is reading this, better make it the fruit and produce section).
Civilians and Amir wanted to know how a team that had finished as the top seed in the conference and made it to the East finals could change its roster so radically.
And, more importantly, what does it mean for the Celtics moving forward? What can one expect from a team with just one returning starter and just four returning players overall from a 53-29 roster?
Well, let us begin with the fact that numbers don’t always tell the truth. The Celtics had no chance of beating Cleveland in the playoffs, just like Lloyd Christmas had no chance with Mary Swanson in “Dumb and Dumber,” despite her “one out of a million” analytics. (Speak reverently of this film around Ainge. It’s his “Gone With the Wind.”)
The Celts were simply not on the Cavaliers’ level, and the fact they won those 53 games and played their green and white-clad behinds off along the way is testament to their character. Johnson conceded both these points, though he still didn’t believe the C’s needed such major surgery.
It speaks well of the Celtics’ basketball ops staff and ownership that it wasn’t crossover-dribbled into the second row by the success. They were always going to be making a play for the summer’s big free agent enchilada, Gordon Hayward, and that was going to necessitate a roster overhaul just to get the space to sign him. That the Celts had the leftover explosives to complete Kyrie Irving trade and detonate more of 2016-17 was the product of good planning and player development.
So where does that leave them now vis a vis the Cavs? The belief conveyed in Philly and Market Basket — and now here — is that the Celtics can compete with Cleveland. Which is saying a lot.
They may get washed into the Cuyahoga in the opener tonight, but the Celts are no longer a postseason speed bump for the three-time defending Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals. They are no longer a can of corn chowder.
How well the Celtics will be able to compete with the Cavs should they meet next spring is a question that can best be answered with more questions.
Tell me how good Jayson Tatum is going to be by April.
Tell me how being The Man — and all the extraneous obligations that comes with it — is going to wear on Irving.
Tell me if Jaylen Brown’s game is going to be not just better, but tighter.
Tell me if the big man rotation with Al Horford will find the right balance of minutes and complementary abilities.
The Celtics came into this past summer needing a consistent volume scorer, and they got that in Hayward. They also said they needed a rim protector, but the feeling here is that, with true swatters so few and far between, they just needed someone large to make an opponent consider the possibility of internal bleeding before taking a casual drive down the lane. We’ll see if Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris can provide that, but the truth is that real basketball toughness comes from everyone on the floor, regardless of size, being willing to play hard and physical defense. That, the C’s should have — unless they trade Marcus Smart this morning. (The way he, Rozier and others play D has a ripple effect through the rotation.)
The Celtics were more than entertaining last season. They were truly admirable in their approach to the game. The chemical compound was greater than would have appeared from inspection of the individual elements.
But beyond Isaiah Thomas, they did not have the consistent firepower to compete when the elite opponents turned up the defense. They may actually have had a better matchup with Golden State than Cleveland, but they were not best-of-seven better than any of the handful of clubs at the top, most of whom still reside in the Left Conference.
Now, however, the Celtics have the players to look anyone and everyone in the eye. Simple orientation and shakedown cruise issues may prevent them from reaching that height for quite a while, but they are now not just in the games, but in the game.