Boston Celtics Are Still the Team to Beat in the East

The Boston Celtics have stumbled out the gate to start the 2018-19 NBA season. Despite a few bad games leading to a 9-6 overall record, the Celtics are still the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Heading into the 2018-19 NBA season, many believed that the Boston Celtics were the favorites to blast through the Eastern Conference. The combination of the team's performance in last season's playoffs and the fact that the LeBron James roadblock has been removed made it seem as if the Celtics would have no trouble reaching the NBA Finals. 

However, we all know things are never that easy in this league. After a troubling start to the season, the Celtics currently hold a 9-6 record and are fourth in the East. Teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors have looked deadly through the first month of the season. Suddenly, the Celtics road to the NBA Finals doesn't seem so clear anymore as their inter-conference rivals appear to be turning into real threats. 

Despite the current standings, Boston should still be the favorite to come out of the East. This slow start has been shocking but it really shouldn't be a cause for concern. Today, we will take a closer look at what is causing Boston's struggles and predict what to expect from them as the season progresses. 

The Struggle 

The Boston Celtics actually kicked off the season with a dominant 105-87 win over their inter-conference rival, the Philadelphia 76ers. Unfortunately, their second game of the year would not be as positive, as Kawhi Leonard torched them for 31 points en route to a 12-point Toronto win. 

Next, Boston would go on to have a pretty good stretch of basketball. A four-game winning streak helped ease the tension, but things quickly took a turn for the worse. Late game heroics from Victor Oladipo helped carry the Indiana Pacers over the Celtics; then a 48-point explosion from Jamal Murray was too much to compete with the Denver Nuggets. 

Things almost hit rock bottom on November 8th, when the Phoenix Suns took a 22-point lead over the Celtics. Thankfully, Kyrie Irving put the team on his back and dragged them to overtime where they eventually won the game, 116-109. Irving finished with a season-high 39 points. 

Since then, the Celtics have dropped two of their last three and are 2-4 overall in their last six games. Had it not been for a crazy fourth quarter comeback against the Suns, Boston would have been on a five-game losing streak. 

So what caused this slow start? Well, it's easy to chalk up most of their struggles to growing pains. This is, after all, the first them they have had their whole team healthy. The All-Star trio of Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford have only played a total of 13 games together, and their inexperience playing together has shown mightily. 

Furthermore, the emergence of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in last year's Playoff's was surely a good thing, but it also made the dynamics of this team even more complicated. These are all very talented players, and learning how to balance the spotlight between the four of them will take some time. And this doesn't even factor in the slew of valuable bench players like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. 

Throw all of this together with the fact that Hayward and Irving have both had some bad shooting nights to start the season, and it's no wonder the Celtics have an 8-6 record. 

How they can overcome this sluggish start

If any coach in basketball is capable of fixing the Boston Celtics issues, it would be Brad Stevens. Ball movement and selflessness have always been key aspects to the system that Stevens has created in Boston. As these players grow and become more familiar with each other, there is no doubt in my mind the team will become more successful. 

Furthermore, it seems as if Kyrie Irving has broken out of whatever spell was holding him back for the first few games. Through six games of the 2018-19 season, Irving was averaging just 14.0 points on 39.1 percent shooting from the floor. He began the season with six straight games of shooting under 34 percent from the three-point line, making it the fifth worst shooting stretch of his entire career. 

Luckily, Irving has stepped it up big time. In his last seven games, Kyrie is putting up an average of 26.4 points, 5.6 assists, and 2.1 steals while shooting 53.6 percent from the field. His elevated play has helped the team greatly and will continue to benefit them going forward. 

Next, the team will need to figure out a way to fit Gordon Hayward into this offense. Hayward has struggled all season, scoring the fewest points per game (10.0) since his rookie season (5.4) and shooting below 40 percent for the first time in his career. He often looks out of place and isn't attempting the shots we have become accustomed to seeing from him. 

Perhaps the biggest goal for this team should be to get Hayward's confidence up and find where he fits with the team. They signed him for a reason and as of now, they have not unlocked his full potential. Hayward is a skilled offensive player and once he begins to make an impact on the game, the Celtics will become a truly elite team. if he continues to appear out of place, it will only hold back the rest of the team. 

Conclusion

The problems that the Boston Celtics are currently facing will almost surely fix themselves. The more they play together, the better the team will gel together. At some point, players will become more comfortable in their roles and (hopefully) accept whatever it is that they need to do for the betterment of the team. 

While the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors have definitely gotten off to a hot start, there is no reason to think that the Celtics can't still compete with them. Boston still has more depth and their stars are just as capable of taking over a game. Irving has proven he can go toe-to-toe-w with the best players in the league and until he fails to come up big in the playoffs, I would not doubt his ability to dominate a series. 

Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown are three guys, in addition to Irving, who are thirsty for a chance to make waves in the playoffs. They will get their chance to shine at some point and when that happens, I think the Boston Celtics will show that they are still the best team in the Eastern Conference. 

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