By Aaron Jackson
As the Boston Celtics approach the playoffs there are a ton of question marks. This past week’s games left fans wondering if this was the team that could win some playoff games, or if they were going to leave everyone hanging again with a first round playoff loss. Here are the five most important questions that I see as the playoffs approach.
- Who will be the Celtics first round opponent? Luck, as it has been for most of this season, seems to be on the side of “The Green” on this one. This team has struggled mightily against the Atlanta Hawks (1-2, with their win only by 2 points and their losses both by larger margins) and Milwaukee Bucks (1-1, with the win in OT), two teams that they seem unlikely to face. The opponent that would be easiest for them is the Miami Heat (4-0), who they are also unlikely to see. The most likely opponent is the Chicago Bulls, who, despite getting crushed by Boston last time out, actually play the Celtics well (2-2). They could also play the Indiana Pacers, a team that they haven’t lost to this season.
- When is Isaiah Thomas at his best? This is an interesting question, as it’s become pretty clear that this Celtics team will likely only go as far as their pint sized star can take them. Despite playing weaker competition the second half of the season Thomas has seen his numbers dip slightly since the all-star break. He’s shooting about 10 percentage points worse, while averaging 2.5 less points per game. His assist numbers have also dropped by 1 a game. This tells me he is starting to get a little bit tired out. Interestingly enough though, Thomas is significantly better on zero days rest than he is with one day of rest between games. In fact, he averages 33 points a game in the 16 games this season with zero days of rest, while only averaging 24 in games when he has three days or more. It’s likely that playoff scheduling may make a big difference in his performance.
- What can we reasonably expect from Al Horford? The Celtics $30 million dollar man has been a disappointment when the team has needed him most. His numbers against playoff teams don’t look good at all. Let’s break them down a little bit.
- Atlanta: 6.7 ppg, 5.7 Reb, 4.7 Ast, .320 Field Goal Percentage
- Chicago: 10 ppg, 5.3 Reb, 4.7 Ast, .462 Field Goal Percentage
- Toronto: 13 ppg, 6 Reb, 4.3 Ast, .394 Field Goal Percentage
- Cleveland 9 ppg, 6 Reb, 5.7 Ast, .476 Field Goal Percentage
None of these numbers inspire confidence. Brad Stevens has to hope that the Celtics big star has saved his best games for the playoffs.
- How important is home court advantage in the NBA playoffs? It’s tough to actually tell. Teams at home in the playoffs win 64 percent of their games, compared to 60 percent in the regular season. The problem of course with using that as a deciding factor is that the better teams typically get home court, so those numbers are biased towards the top teams. According to Bleacher Report teams tend to shoot slightly better at home, while turning the ball over a little less. Refs also tend to favor the home team slightly; in a study done between 2003 and 2011 they called about one foul less on the home team than the road team. None of those numbers are enough to completely change a series, but they may make an impact. Interestingly, home teams win about 80 percent of their series in the first two rounds (talent gap), but in the conference championship it’s a 50/50 proposition.
- How far do they need to go to be considered a success? This is the big question isn’t it? You won’t find many people willing to say they expect this team to make it to the NBA Finals, something a true #1 or #2 seed should be capable of doing. So in that sense their record in the regular season doesn’t carry as much weight as maybe it should. A 50+ win season is nice, but no one will remember it 5 years from now if they don’t perform in the playoffs. This question is a subjective one, and people’s answers will vary. My version of success in this instance is making it to the conference finals, something I don’t expect will happen. In my mind it’s a 50/50 proposition against the Wizards, but Toronto and Cleveland are still the teams to beat in the East. The Celtics need to hope their string of good luck continues, and they get a series against Miami/Indiana followed by a series against Washington. That’s their best, and possibly only chance, at getting to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Aaron Jackson (@AaronRJackson on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.