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Celtics are legitimate NBA title contenders once again

Hayward, Thomas and Horford could be Boston’s newest Big Three

Peeved Golden State Warriors fans are quickly heading to the exits after being stunned for the second time in three years. An emotional Gordon Hayward is holding the Boston Celtics’ 18th NBA championship trophy on the Oracle Arena floor after winning the 2018 NBA Finals. Isaiah Thomas is holding the MVP trophy after the handoff from Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell.

This scenario is possible for the Celtics, who with the free-agent commitment of Hayward forced room for themselves on the small couch of 2018 NBA title contenders, along with the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. While the odds of a championship are stronger for the Warriors and Cavs, the main reason the Celtics have a shot is their new trio of Hayward, Thomas and Al Horford.

Hayward, a 2017 NBA All-Star, averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game last season with the Utah Jazz. Fellow All-Star Thomas averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists for the Celtics. Veteran forward-center Al Horford, a four-time All-Star, averaged 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds.

The Celtics won an Eastern Conference-best 53 games last season. Now they’ve added Hayward and a 2018 Rookie of the Year candidate in third-overall draft pick Jayson Tatum.

The Celtics have had famous Big Threes in their storied history. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish starred in the 1980s. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen won the Celtics’ last championship in 2008.

That hard-to-create formula could be back in Boston with Hayward joining Thomas and Horford.

“Not quite the ‘Big Three’ that I knew, but in today’s standards it’s not a bad trio,” said Cedric Maxwell, who played with Bird, McHale and Parish.

Another key to the Celtics’ championship prospects is their deep and versatile supporting cast. But most of it has to remain intact.

The Celtics have one of the NBA’s best on-ball defenders in underrated guard Avery Bradley. Time will tell if Bradley, forward Jae Crowder or guard Marcus Smart are a casualty of the Hayward signing as was Kelly Olynyk. Boston would regret losing Bradley. Young guard Terry Rozier showed promise last season and will get more minutes.

The Celtics have two future stars in athletic and long forwards Jaylen Brown and rookie Tatum. They have nicknamed themselves “7-11” after their respective numbers 7 and 11, and because they are always open. Expect the Energizer Bunny-like Brown to take a big step forward next season, while Tatum adds a well-rounded game off the bench.

“With these two young boys, there is a bridge you can put them in and they can run and be as athletic as anyone in the East,” Maxwell said.

Coach Brad Stevens has to figure out a way to get these new-look Celtics, most notably Hayward and Thomas, to jell. Thomas will have to be more of a facilitator while still being offensively aggressive when needed. Egos need to be pushed aside for the greater good of a title, which was vital to the success of Garnett, Pierce and Allen. While the individual accolades and scoring may dip, everyone eats well when you win it all. Stevens has a relationship with Hayward that dates to their days at Butler, which could ease the transition.

“Hayward is a great player and I think he will fit in naturally in Brad’s system, no-brainer,” Maxwell said.

Allen said the 2008 NBA championship team that won a league-best 66 games didn’t get on the same page until about March of that season. Garnett, Pierce and Allen believed that one factor to building their camaraderie was having training camp in Rome and London their first season together and in Newport, Rhode Island, to start the second campaign. Today’s Celtics should go to Newport as well to get time away from Boston and their families to get on the same page more quickly.

The Celtics lost size and rebounding with Olynyk becoming a free agent and with free-agent center Amir Johnson agreeing to terms with the Philadelphia 76ers. Boston ranked 26th in rebounding last season. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has to be creative to add rebounding to this team via free agency or trade. It won’t be easy, as the Celtics are a luxury tax team.

“Until they shore up their rebounding, I don’t know if they are a title contender or not,” Maxwell said of the Celtics.

NBA fans worldwide have grown fond of seeing the Warriors-Cavaliers in the Finals for three straight years. The Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are still at least one major roster move away from being a true threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference. But the Celtics are a real threat to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics have the talent to crash the Finals party. And if Ainge is able to pull off an 18th title next season, he’ll deserve a statue near Red Auerbach’s at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.