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Sports Opinion: On Fire at the Right Time

The 2018-2019 N.B.A. season was supposed to mark the genesis of a new Boston Celtics, the next titan of the Eastern Conference. In the void left behind by LeBron James’ departure from the East, the Celtics 2018-2019 season was meant to serve as their ascension into conference supremacy. Instead, their season was turbulent, tumultuous, and frustrating. A team overloaded with potential and talent, the Celtics underperformed, finishing with a record of 49-33. Inconsistent play, underpinned by a barrage of snide remarks stemming from superstar Kyrie Irving have mired the team in controversy. Stretches of stellar basketball would be followed by frustrating losing streaks. Despite the Celtics’ debacle of a season, however, they are somehow on the precipice of another Eastern Conference Finals berth. How, one might ask, does a team embroiled in free agency controversy and shaky play beat the Milwaukee Bucks and M.V.P. frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo (who incidentally have the best record in the N.B.A. at 60-22) by a score of 112-90?

There are two versions of the Boston Celtics. There is the team that plays devoid conviction and fire, and there is the team that consistently bests powerhouses like Toronto, Milwaukee, and Golden State. And recently, as evidenced by their sweep of the Pacers and blowout of the Bucks, the Celtics are in their latter iteration. On any given day, the Celtics can beat any team. 5-1 in the playoffs so far, the Celtics are red hot and have seemingly overcome their inconsistency and lethargy. Despite an ugly loss this past Tuesday, the Celtics still split two road games with the Bucks and are poised to play well when the series travels to the Garden.

The source of this recent Celtic revival rests on the shoulders of their impressive arsenal of talent. While guard Kyrie Irving has been dynamic the entire season, other stars such as Gordon Hayward have had variable levels of success. Hayward this season has been a touchstone for criticism this season, averaging only 11.5 points per game (a far cry from his 21.9 ppg in the 2016-2017 season with the Jazz). Additionally, his addition to the Celtics rotation upon returning from injury has resulted in reduced playing time for budding stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, forcing coach Brad Stevens to rethink lineups and game strategies. Hayward’s resurgence has revitalized the Celtics, however. His efficiency has eased the team’s offensive burden, and his solid defensive effort has augmented an already formidable defense.

Players like Jayson Tatum have also elevated their play, augmenting the Celtics with a strong young presence. Tatum enjoyed an especially efficient series against Indiana and was instrumental in the 4 game sweep. Averaging 15.8 points per game this playoffs, Tatum has proven deadly from deep, shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from three.

Ultimately, the Celtics are like fire: tricky to spark and cultivate but deadly once ignited. As of now, these Celtics are ignited; their fire burns the brightest it has all season. With continuing stellar play from Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and the improving prospects of Tatum and Hayward, the Celtics stand only three wins away from yet another chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee are a formidable opponent, but then again, this is the team that took LeBron James to a Game 7 without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. This is the team that has set the standard of excellence in the N.B.A. for half a century, and the team that has a chance to do it once more.