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Will new faces help Celtics get to finish line of Banner 18 quest?

Will new faces help Celtics get to finish line of Banner 18 quest? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Three hundred and twenty-nine days after the Boston Celtics' last playoff trek ended with a grueling Game 7 home loss to the Miami Heat, the Green restart their quest for elusive Banner 18 against that same Heat team on the same Garden parquet Sunday with Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series.

Allow Jaylen Brown to set the table for the start of Boston’s playoff journey.

“The playoffs is another level,” said Brown. "You've got to look within and just unleash whatever it is that is inside of you to go to that next level. Because it's gonna get physical. It's gonna get nasty. It's gonna get ugly.

"It's gonna be a battle, a war, and your team got to make it home. So whatever you got to do to go to that place is what you got to do. I'm excited about that.”

The Round 1 opponent might be familiar, as is Boston’s title goal, but the Celtics enter this war with a few new front-line lieutenants. In the aftermath of falling short last season, Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens boldly elected to tweak the core of a team that had reached the 2022 NBA Finals, trading out defensive stalwarts Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III while bringing in Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday.

The Celtics were an NBA wrecking ball from practically the first minute that new-look squad hit the floor. Porzingis added a new dimension to a Celtics offense that set an NBA record with an offensive rating of 122.2, while Holiday quarterbacked a defense capable of playing to Boston’s familiar standard. The result was an NBA-best 64 wins that will afford the Celtics homecourt advantage for the duration of their postseason stay.

Celtics brass have been quick to remind players this week that every playoff team resets to 0-0 as the postseason launches, but there’s an undeniable energy around the C's based on what they’ve seen from this group over the past six months.

The veteran members of this team yearn to get to the finish line of their championship goals and believe that the addition of Porzingis and Holiday, along with the development of core bench pieces, could be enough to get the team where it has yearned to go.

How quickly did Boston players know this group could achieve its loftiest of goals with this group?

"I honestly think from the beginning,” said Al Horford, who selflessly embraced a bench role before the season so that Porzingis and Holiday could be part of the starting five alongside Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Derrick White.

"I've got to give credit to Brad because he has a feel for what we have here in this locker room and putting those pieces together. And knowing the type of characters that [Porzingis and Holiday] have, the kind of people that they are.

"In our locker room, we have a great group of guys, guys that want to win, and they want to compete. Jayson and Jaylen, they just want to win. They want to enjoy this journey and and they've been very accepting and welcoming. That’s why I feel like we've been able to make it work.”

Every member of Boston’s six-man core sacrificed in one way or another to thrive as a group. Players gave up individual stats to boost the team’s overall efficiency, which included posting a league-best +11.7 net rating that was 4.3 points better than the next-closest team (Oklahoma City, +7.3). The Celtics were 6.8 points better than the next closest team in the East (New York, +4.9).

All of which has positioned the team with a clear path to competing for a title this season. The Celtics know all too well how prickly a matchup with the Heat can be, even if Miami is without the services of Jimmy Butler to start the series, and Boston must play with the same intent it has routinely displayed this season.

Having Porzingis and Holiday as part of the mix will aid that quest.

Porzingis has only 10 games of postseason experience, watching the Mavericks fall in Round 1 of the playoffs in both 2020 and 2021. He spent last season toiling with the lottery-bound Wizards. The perpetual smile that Porzingis has displayed this season tells the story of a player who is highly motivated to compete in the postseason.

“I think we all knew he was extremely talented, could shoot the ball — we’ve know that. But I think this is a point in the career that he's at where he wants to compete,” Brown said of Porzingis, who has emerged as Brown's fast friend after his arrival here.

"I think he's excited about the playoffs. He's ready to go to war. He’s ready to be like that KP that is getting five blocks in the game and just holding down. And that's what we need — we need that version if we want to go where we say we are going. I think he's a huge key.”

Porzingis was a backline deterrent who held opponents to 5.7 percent below expected field goal percentage this season. That included holding opponents to 49.8 percent shooting inside six feet, or a staggering 13.6 percent below expected output, per NBA tracking. On the offensive end, Porzingis dominated in the post and routinely steadied the team when perimeter shooting went cold.

“He’s just a mismatch nightmare,” said White. "You want to switch, he's going to punish you in the post. If you don't want to switch, he's going to pick and pop. There's just so many different ways he can impact the game. I knew he was a good scorer, but he does a lot of other stuff, especially defensively, that you probably don't really realize until you play with him each and every day.”

White also got to share the backcourt with Holiday this season, creating an All-Defense tandem that White’s father, Richard, nicknamed “The Stock Exchange” for their propensity to pile up steals and blocks.

White is quick to rave about Holiday’s impact as well.

“It's been amazing. I mean he just does so much out there that you don't really realize until you're on his team and you just see it day in and day out,” said White. “Even when he [missed a] couple games [due to shoulder injury], I felt like Jrue might have made a play there or got his hand on a loose ball or whatever it might be. So just all the little things that he does on both sides of the court.

“He’s just another guy that doesn't care about how much points he has, what his numbers look like, and just wants to win.”

Maybe no one on the Celtics sacrificed more than Holiday. During his final season in Milwaukee, particularly when Giannis Antetokounmpo was sidelined, Holiday would shoulder a heavy offensive load. This season, he was perfectly content to play a supporting role and maximize his efficiency. Holiday led the NBA in corner 3-point percentage and feasted when opponents put too much attention on his teammates.

The most encouraging part for his new Celtics teammates is how much Holiday’s postseason experience could aid Boston on its postseason march. He’s appeared in 70 playoff games and knows what it takes to win after capturing a title in Milwaukee in 2021.

"It's been fun to see Jrue throughout the season. He's a guy that knows what it takes and he has a calmness about him that I feel like it's contagious with our group,” said Horford.

"It doesn't matter the moment, I kind of look at Jrue and everything is OK. Everything is fine. I feel like he's seen a lot and been in a lot of meaningful games. So his presence has been felt here, we feel good and very lucky to have him. But his impact on winning, on the court and off the court, we felt it already.”

Yes, it sure feels like these Celtics are ready for war.

Celtics playoff predictions

  • First Round: Celtics over Heat in five games

  • Second Round: Celtics over Orlando Magic in five games

  • Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics over New York Knicks in six games

  • NBA Finals: Celtics over Denver Nuggets in seven games

  • NBA Finals MVP: Kristaps Porzingis

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