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The Celtics' Upcoming Gauntlet Will Answer This Key Question

The annual championship fever is here in Boston, and this year's team is looking like as legitimate a contender as any. However, if the past five seasons or so are any indication, this part of the season, while it's also about seeding, is also about ironing out the team to get to their best form come playoff time.

The Celtics have a scary stretch coming up, but it's also rife with tests that will be good for them in the long run. They passed their first one with a 14-point win over the Knicks, but still to come is a difficult homestand against Philly, Dallas, and Golden State.

Following is a bit of a nightmarish road trip that starts with a gauntlet of Cleveland, Denver, and Phoenix, and then eases up with games against Portland and Utah before another home date with the Suns. All this is to say: the Celtics will get tested immensely - their post-all-star break pursuits start with 8 games in a row against playoff-caliber teams. How can they use these tests to their advantage?

Can The Celtics Manage The Ends Of Games?

For the most part, the Celtics have been clinical this season, but where they've struggled a bit is the exact situation where they'll find themselves time and time again in the playoffs - in close games.

Of their 12 losses, 7 have been decided by 6 points or less, 3 of which have been in OT. A few key themes seem to define these losses: simple missed looks mediated by a flashy play ending with a missed shot, poor FT shooting, turnovers, and over-reliance on the three in clutch situations.

The Celtics need to work on the pressure situations, and these games will provide a nice crucible for it. To come out of this stretch with a good record, they'll need to take the simple looks, have some go-to end-of-game plays (which will help for the playoffs), and secure the basketball. How well they work on these aspects will determine the course of their entire season.

For a team like the Celtics, who have a clear number-one option in Tatum, but are also incredibly deep, the end-of-game planning is rife with options, sometimes too many. They'd be prudent to use JT as a central part of any final-minute game plans, whether as a scorer, a facilitator, or a decoy. Being able to make these decisions in the close moments is an area where Joe Mazulla has struggled a bit so far in his Celtics tenure - that decisiveness will need to sharpen for the Celtics to bring it home this year.

The over-reliance on the three has been a recurring issue for Boston. While they've been hot from beyond the arc enough to decrease the overall impact of it, whenever the threes don't fall, the Celtics typically land in hot water. It will be important to take advantage of their inside in those moments, especially having a strong interior presence in Porzingis and having multiple players skilled at driving to the rim.

While this all seems simple enough, and how to handle close games is a question for every single NBA team, the Celtics have very systematic reasons why this phase of the game goes wrong on occasion. Most importantly, if they can handle these moments, it's likely that there isn't a team out there who can outmatch them four times out of seven.

The Bottom Line

It's crunch time on Causeway St, and the Celtics have a golden chance to smooth out the rough ends before the playoffs with a brutal upcoming stretch of games. How they handle the clutch moments will decide not just this stretch, but their whole season.

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