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Boston Celtics, undeterred by preseason struggles, have a big goal: the NBA Finals

After a tough preseason in which Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were brought back into the mix, what will the Celtics look like this year?

With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both healthy, what can the Celtics achieve?
With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both healthy, what can the Celtics achieve?Read moreWinslow Townson / AP

BOSTON — Do not expect head coach Brad Stevens to say whether or not his Boston Celtics are ready to compete with the 76ers.

On that note, don't expect him to say which team is better, if he expects to see the Sixers in the Eastern Conference finals, or anything else that might involve a future prediction.

That's understandable: he doesn't have a crystal basketball, and there's no way of knowing how the season will pan out.

"I'll tell you April 13th. I have no idea," he said when asked if he sees his team as the best in the East. "Everyone has to play 82 games and we need to be focused on how we can play our best. Time will tell who the best is. Who knows?"

The Celtics, who knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs in the second round, are looking at the upcoming season with even more hope and expectation than before. The team made a run to the Eastern Conference finals, where they fell to the Cavaliers, without two of their best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

But even with the return of their two stars, the Celtics' performance in the preseason did little in the way of inspiring confidence. They went 1-4, just scraping by with a win against the Charlotte Hornets.

>> READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the Sixers season

The players didn't seem fazed. Philadelphia native Marcus Morris shrugged off the losses, saying it was preseason and insinuating the games have no bearing on what a team is capable of. Following a preseason loss to the Cavaliers on Oct. 2, Jaylen Brown reminded reporters that it was early and there was still time before the regular season.

Their coach was not as nonchalant, tearing into the team after losing to the Cavs.

"I couldn't be more unimpressed after our first three exhibition games," Stevens said.

The Celtics followed that game with another loss four days later, again to the Cavaliers four days later.

Whether or not Stevens wants to say it, and despite the preseason results, the Celtics are the favorite in the East to make it to the NBA Finals. In odds released Monday by William Hill-US, the company that runs the sports book in Atlantic City's Ocean Resort, the Celtics are the prohibitive favorite at less than 1-1 odds, while the Sixers are the next up at 7-2.

Analysts, fans and front-office executives agree with those odds for the most part. In the annual GM survey, 90 percent of the league's decision-makers pegged the Celtics as the best team in the East. In that same survey, 33 percent said the Sixers are the second-best team in the conference; 50 percent chose the Toronto Raptors.

The survey shows most people aren't worried about the speedbumps the Celtics might hit along the way this season. The overwhelming belief is that things will smooth over.

Look at how well the team was playing to end the 2017-18 season, and then add Irving and Hayward to the mix, and it's not hard to believe that they're one of the league's best.

But Stevens had an take on that as well.

"No shot that we win on talent alone," he said. "No one does that. You have to play together and play the right way."

Whether the struggles of the team have to do with offseason rust, or the kinks that come with the reintegrating two people into the heart of the rotation, the expectations for the Celtics are the same as the Sixers.

Brett Brown declared the Sixers' goal of making it to the NBA Finals at the start of training camp — a lofty goal for the rising team. For Stevens, the expectations go unsaid and understood for anyone who coaches or plays in Boston. The city expects a shot at a title every year.

This year, and for years to come, it's starting to look like the Celtics will have to compete with the Sixers in order to make it to their desired destination.

No two NBA teams have more history facing each other in the postseason, and what was once a storied rivalry was given new life last season when the Sixers and Celtics met in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs after playing four times during the regular season.

Both teams, stacked with young and hungry talent, are undoubtedly in the top tier of the East and understand their position.

"It's clear that they're really really good, but so is Toronto," Brown said during training camp. "I'm aware of who sort of holds the throne right now in the East and at the moment we do not. But we hope to."

As far as the rivalry between the two franchises being reborn, the Celtics players aren't ready to call it that just yet, but the NBA certainly is helping push things in that direction. The teams will meet on opening night Tuesday and again on Christmas Day on national TV.

Though Stevens is hesitant to try and make any sort of future predictions he is certainly complimentary when he thinks it's warranted, and when he looks across the court at the Sixers, it's a team that he knows will give his a run for its money.

"I think the Sixers are really really good, there's no question about it," he said Monday. "When you combine talent with the continuity of everything they have going on and just the way they play and share the ball, they will certainly be one of the league's best this year."

On Tuesday night we'll get the first glimpse at how the NBA season will play out. What's in store for the new-era Sixers-Celtics rivalry will start to rear it's head, and by the end of the evening at least one of the teams will have a little more bragging rights than it did before. Then, it's just 81 more games until the real fight begins.