Celtics with the most to prove during bubble play

If the Celtics are going to make a legitimate title run inside the NBA bubble, it’s going to take more than a few big games out of Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. They’re going to need significant contributions across the board to take out the Raptors and Bucks in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

Luckily enough, they have plenty of guys with something to prove given their status in the league or contract situation. Here’s a look at three Celtics with the most to prove as basketball gets set to resume.

Jayson Tatum

Was February a new normal or a hot streak for Tatum?

He averaged 30.7 points per game for the month while shooting 49.4%from the floor and over 48% from three. Those just aren’t sustainable shooting percentages, I don’t care who you are.

Tatum needs to perform inside the bubble if he wants to sustain his superstar status throughout the league. If his jumper isn’t falling, and it’d be understandable if it didn’t after a four-month gap between NBA games, he’ll need to get to the free-throw line with regularity. The best scorers put constant pressure on defenses regardless of whether their shot’s falling or not.

RELATED: KEMBA WALKER’S KNEE IS NOTHING TO PANIC ABOUT

Coincidentally, Tatum averaged 7.6 free-throw attempts per game in February, while his average for the rest of the season is four free-throw attempts per game.

Tatum’s leap vaulted the Celtics into title contention. If he can get close to that level of production again, Boston is easily the biggest threat to Milwaukee in the East. If not, they may be looking at a closely contested second-round exit at the hands of the Raptors.

Gordon Hayward

Hayward is the Celtics’ X-factor. When he’s playing at his best, acting as the perfect secondary scorer and playmaker next to Kemba Walker, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston is an extremely tough team to beat. When he’s playing passively, unwilling to take the shots that are open for him and he overshares the ball, the team’s ceiling takes a considerable hit.

Hayward’s also entering a contract year to some extent. He has the ability to decline his $34 million option for next season, and while few expect him to do that based on the bleak state of this year’s free-agent market, it’s still in his best interest to maximize his value.

Hayward’s play inside the bubble will undoubtedly play a major role in the Celtics’ success on the floor and perhaps their decision off the floor regarding Hayward’s future with the franchise. Fortunately, the 30-year-old is completely healthy and ready to go.

Semi Ojeleye

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bigger Semi Ojeleye fan than me. I think he has the tools to be an incredibly valuable 3-and-D forward who can guard 1-through-5, knockdown spot-up threes and maybe one day be a decent driver against closeouts. I love him to death.

However, Ojeleye is running out of chances. He has a team option for next season which I’ve got to believe Boston will pick up, but then he’s hitting the free-agent market without much of a reputation as a consistent rotational piece.

RELATED: GRANT WILLIAMS’ THREE-POINT STROKE IMPRESSING KANTER

The good news is that he was playing well this season and was hitting nearly 37% of his threes. Ojeleye’s defense is still solid, the Celtics will need him when they play the Bucks, Sixers and Raptors at some point down the line and he even flashed some ability to be an effective offensive rebounder.

The bad news? Grant Williams is coming on strong, Romeo Langford won’t be stuck at the end of the bench forever and the Celtics have three more first-round picks coming in the 2020 NBA Draft. They could of course trade the picks, but Boston would also be wise to use a roster spot or two on a veteran scorer to complement the starters. The Celtics’ bench ranked 29th in scoring this season.

Ojeleye needs to carve out a consistent role on this team, and the bubble presents a perfect opportunity to do so. If he can continue to play sound defense and couple it with some steady three-point shooting, he could earn himself a contract extension. Of these three Celtics with the most to prove, few have more on the line than Ojeleye.

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