NBA Column: Are we still worried about the Celtics?

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Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (11) shoots over Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young (21) during the second half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in Indianapolis, Sunday, April 21, 2019. The Celtics defeated the Pacers 110-106 to win the series 4-0. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Back in January, Kyrie Irving called LeBron James on the phone and apologized for how he acted as a young player on those LeBron-led Cavaliers team that went 1-2 against the Warriors in the NBA Finals (Irving wasn’t around for last season’s finals loss).

Shortly before that weird event, in a loss to the Orlando Magic, Irving told reporters, “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team,” which was met with mixed responses around the league. After all, Irving is set to be a free agent this offseason, and the murmurs that he’s destined to team up with Kevin Durant in New York have been growing louder.

While some supported Irving’s claim, most thought that this was a sign of poor leadership on Irving’s part. He should be encouraging the younger guys to be better, not blaming them for losses. I mean, the same guys that Irving is critiquing led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals the previous season while he was sidelined in street clothes!

That run to the ECF was part of the reason why these Boston Celtics had such high expectations heading into this season. If that team could make a run into the ECF and take a LeBron-led team to game seven, then just imagine what they can do once they get Irving and Hayward back into the mix. As a result, Vegas set the Celtics win total at 59 wins, which was the second-highest in the NBA behind Golden State.

Instead, the Celtics went 49-33 and severely struggled at times. While this was still good for fourth in the East, the majority of media and fans expected Boston to finish No. 1 and have a cake-walk into the finals.

Falling short of expectations, along with strange, cryptic messages sent by Irving, created the illusion that the Celtics and Irving are bad. If you want to go even deeper, they were saying that the Celtics and Irving are bad for each other. Some people were even picking the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers to upset the Celtics in round one of these playoffs.

If this sweep of Indiana has taught us anything, it’s that the Celtics actually aren’t bad. In fact, maybe they are kind of good?

The Pacers went into the playoffs with the third-best defensive rating in the NBA, and the Celtics with the sixth. As somewhat expected, the first game was low-scoring. Nobody would’ve guessed that it’d be 158-total-points-scored low, though. The Celtics countered Indiana’s great defensive with even greater defense, holding them to under 100 points in three of the four games.

As for the offense, Irving did what Irving’s going to do by averaging 22.5 points and 7.8 assists through the series with a 37 point outburst in game two. But it was Jayson Tatum who made the difference by contributing a steady 19.3 points per game while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from deep.

Tatum’s success will directly correlate to Boston’s success in these playoffs, much like last season. This regular season, he struggled. He averaged only 15.7 points per game while shooting a much worse 45 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from 3-point range. As a result, Boston struggled. Through this playoff series, he thrived. As a result, Boston thrived.

The “poor leadership” narrative that surrounded Irving mid-season doesn’t seem to be affecting the team anymore. It’s in the past. My guess is that it’s just another media-driven theatrical storyline that will be lost in basketball history. Irving is back to quietly performing the way that we’ve come to expect. As long as Tatum keeps on tapping into his “Playoff Tatum” persona (trust me, it’ll catch on) like last year, I am not worried about the Celtics.


Sean Janos is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached at sean.janos@uconn.edu.

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