Questions Celtics Must Answer Before 2021 NBA Playoffs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 22, 2021

Questions Celtics Must Answer Before 2021 NBA Playoffs

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics are up to something.

    But good luck figuring out what that something is.

    There's a chance they are heating up at the right time—eight wins over their past 10 games—and will sprint through the stretch run and turn into a formidable force for the 2021 NBA playoffs. There's also an equal chance this consistently inconsistent club could cool off and never resemble what so many expected them to be.

    Their fate might hinge on their ability to answer these three critical questions ahead of the postseason.

Can They Count on Kemba Walker?

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    In a vacuum, Boston's decision to let Gordon Hayward walk in free agency seemed sensible once he scored a four-year, $120 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets.

    But that was operating under the assumption the Celtics still had a Big Three without him. While Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have upheld their end of the bargain, Kemba Walker has rarely been himself in a season he started late because of a nagging knee issue.

    There are flashes of Vintage Kemba, such as when he's cooking dudes off the dribble and peppering in mid-range jumpers with a feathery soft touch. However, he has struggled enough with his shooting to fail to turn those flashes into more substantial streaks.

    His three-point percentage has tailed off (34.5 percent, his lowest mark since 2014-15), and his long-two connection clip has fallen off a cliff (34.8 percent from 16 feet to the three-point arc, the second-worst rate of his career).

    Since his 6'0", 184-pound frame makes him an obvious target on defense, he needs to be special offensively to consistently affect the Celtics for the better. He has done that in the past, but the 30-year-old needs to rediscover his reliability in a hurry.

Has Robert Williams III Fixed the Interior Issues?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Boston raised more than a few eyebrows when it parted with then-starting center Daniel Theis at the trade deadline. But the Celtics have seen some addition-by-subtraction boosts courtesy of new opening 5 man, Robert Williams III.

    More explosive and a better above-the-rim presence than Theis, Williams might give Boston more bite at the center spot, which has been an area of concern since Al Horford left in 2019. With players like Joel Embiid, Bam Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo potentially standing in the Celtics' path out of the East, it's hard to overstate what an upgrade at center could mean for this club.

    But is Williams ready to be this team's interior answer?

    He has the physical tools to do it, as both a lob threat who can collapse defenses and a paint protector who can turn back opposing attackers at the basket. However, his lack of experience shows in his jumpiness as a defender and his propensity to try too hard when helping on defense.

    More than anything, the Celtics need stability at this spot. Williams looks like he will provide that eventually, but Boston needs it right now.

Can Jayson Tatum Level Up?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Prior to last season's suspension, Tatum seemed en route to superstardom.

    During the nine games he squeezed between the All-Star break and the shutdown, he averaged 29.9 points on 47.2/46.8/78.3 shooting. He looked, frankly, like the best player in the East not named Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid.

    Tatum has been good this season. He booked a second consecutive All-Star trip, made tangible improvements as a table-setter—a critical development given Walker's inconsistency and the loss of Hayward—and boosted most areas of his stat line.

    But he hasn't been superstar great. No one is sneezing at 25.8 points on 45.7/38.7/87.4 shooting, but it's not the same as the supernova that soared amid that sizzling stretch last season.

    The Sixers have an MVP candidate in Embiid. The Bucks have a two-time winner in Antetokounmpo. The Nets have two former MVPs in Kevin Durant and James Harden, plus a seven-time All-Star who hit one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history in Kyrie Irving.

    Star power is a must to escape the East. Tatum's ability to bring more out of himself could determine how far this Celtics squad can advance.