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Five things to watch as the first round begins

Boston Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis, right, moves the ball while being defended by Miami Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. during the first half of an NBA game on Sunday, February 11 in Miami. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

After the Celtics’ regular season ended last week, Kristaps Porzingis took a photo of the TV in the players’ lounge at the Auerbach Center. An important message appeared on the screen.

‘0-0’, it said.

The Celtics won 64 games this season – the fourth most in team history – while dominating the NBA. They secured the top seed in the East by a whopping 14 games as they boasted the best offense in the history of the league.

None of that matters now.

The Celtics finally enter the playoffs on Sunday and nothing short of a championship will be a justifiable outcome for this group. All the pieces are in place and everything is in place to bring home their first title in 16 years.

Their first opponent in their quest? Of course it’s the Miami Heat.

Five things to watch out for as the first round begins:

1. The Porzingis Effect

Porzingis was home in Latvia this time last year watching the NBA playoffs. But he didn’t quite enjoy it. He wanted to be part of it.

“I think to myself, ‘Sure it’s nice to end the season early, but there’s nothing else to do,’” Porzingis recently recalled. “What better thing to do than play basketball? Nothing.”

Porzingis will finally get his wish. The 28-year-old played just ten play-off games in his career and never reached the first round. But after a blockbuster trade to Boston last summer, he is now central to the Celtics’ championship hopes.

Porzingis played in just 57 games while the Celtics managed his health at an all-time high. When he played, his performances were everything they were looking for and more on both ends of the pitch. His signing was in some ways a response to their loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, as the Celtics looked for more answers against opposing defenses. Now it’s time to prove it.

“Playing in the postseason will be incredible. I’m looking forward to it,” said Porzingis. “Of course it will be difficult, it will be physically and mentally tough. But if we want to achieve what we want to achieve, it will not be easy.”

2. An emotional hurdle

Heat star Jimmy Butler will miss this series after suffering an MCL injury in their play-in-game loss to the 76ers this week. But that doesn’t mean the Celtics should overlook their opponent.

Celtics fans will rightfully have some PTSD when the Heat walk into TD Garden on Sunday afternoon, and the C’s should be plenty motivated by the sight of it. The Heat, of course, ended the Celtics’ season less than eleven months ago with that brutal Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat might not have the same firepower without Butler, and even though they had another disappointing regular season, their championship-level DNA remains with Erik Spoelstra at the top. Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro are dangerous and Caleb Martin – as the Celtics learned last spring – can get hot quickly. Perhaps this is the opponent the Celtics need to set the tone for their championship run.

3. The sales battle

The Celtics don’t have to look any further than Game 7 of last season to know how important it is to secure the ball against the Heat. They scored 15 goals — including eight from Jaylen Brown, who had more of the ball in his hands after Jayson Tatum left with an injury — in that season-ending loss.

Without Butler, the Heat’s defense may not be as impressive, but it remains a part of their DNA. The Celtics posted the fewest turnovers per game in the league this season, but it may be a different story against the Heat.

4. Pairing time

The Celtics set an NBA record this season with 17 wins by 25 or more points. They defeated their opponents by an average of 11.34 points per game, which is the fifth best in the history of the league. Their talent is so good that it’s easy for them to blow teams out, and there will likely be several lopsided wins in the playoffs, but one concern that remains is their ability to win close games.

The C’s were certainly better in the clutch this season, but there were several losses – including defeats to the Cavs and Nuggets – that exposed their worst shortcomings under pressure. Their offense slows down, and they struggle on the final possession. In their hunt for a title, they will have to win some close games, and that could happen in the first round against a Heat team that had 22 wins to its name this season and finished in eighth place.

5. Arrange business

Another test for the Celtics this season? Don’t make it harder on yourself.

The Celtics have obviously made their path more difficult than it needed to be last season. They had to play six games against the Hawks in the first round after dropping a Game 5 clincher at home. They had to fight back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the 76ers in the second round. The extra work caught up with them as they tried and failed to overcome a 3-0 deficit against the Heat.

The C’s are blessed with a favorable path as the No. 1 seed in a vulnerable East, and they should take advantage of it. Get some extra rest and be at their best for the NBA Finals, if they can get there.