Regardless of what happens in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics have validated their season and accomplished all that could have reasonably been expected of them.
Advancing two rounds in the playoffs, only to potentially get slaughtered by the defending champions, isn’t exactly the end-goal of a franchise hanging an NBA-best 17 title banners in the rafters. The Celtics have much grander dreams and goals, but their journey to reach this point from where they were four years ago is a major accomplishment in itself.
In the summer of 2013, Boston parted ways with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and pushed the button on a full rebuild that led to a 25-57 record in the first season under Brad Stevens. Isaiah Thomas showed up the year after and ever since, they have ascended to becoming one of the top teams in the league, culminating in a 53-29 record and top seed in the East.
Despite the success, Boston remain one rung below LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers and with little hope to challenge for the crown.
And that’s okay for now. With even the rosiest of preseason expectations reached, from here, the rest of these playoffs are gravy.
The Boston Celtics are busy this week... pic.twitter.com/FixCt22Zi1— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 16, 2017
Boston have a long-term plan, of sustained contention, which still has a way to go to be completed.
This was never going to be the year where they had to capitalise on a championship window. That’s further down the line; maybe even next season, depending on summer activity.
And yet here we are, imagining the heights the Celtics could achieve in the future, while in the present watching them win Game 7 of the second round, land a draft pick and host the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals across three consecutive days.
Danny Ainge was criticised in the wake of standing pat at the trade deadline, failing to pull the trigger to upgrade the supporting cast or add a star. As unstoppable as Cleveland look, would any trade have moved the needle for Boston? Ask Toronto how much the short-term acquisitions for PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka helped them against the Cavs. And that’s not even mentioning the Golden State Death Star.
It’s odd to say about a team preparing for their most important games of the season, but Boston truly have no worries.
A quick turnaround forces the Boston Celtics to recalibrate and focus on taming a beast no team in the East has yet to conquer over the past three years.
As the roars at TD Garden slowly dissolved and the euphoria wore off following Boston’s 115-105 win over the Washington Wizards in Game 7 of the second round on Monday, reality hit. The Cleveland Cavaliers come to town, fully rested and raring to go as the Eastern Conference Finals get under way.
The defending champions, led by LeBron James, are rightfully heavy favourites after coming off back-to-back sweeps to reassert their dominance in the East.
There is little evidence to suggest the Celtics are anything more than a speed bump on the Cavaliers’ road to a third straight Finals, but Boston’s Isaiah Thomas is used to being counted out, both personally and as part of the team he’s helped revive.
“They didn’t give us a chance [against the Wizards]. They didn’t give us a chance when we were down 2-0 to Chicago. We got the No1 seed, they didn’t give us a chance,” Thomas said after scoring 29 points and dishing 12 assists to eliminate the Wizards.
“They don’t ever give us a chance and we just keep going. We don’t care about what others say.”
If Boston are to pull off an upset and keep James from reaching a seventh-straight Finals, Thomas will likely have to be at this best.
The guard received a heavy dose of showing and trapping from Washington and Cleveland figure to follow suit. In the previous round against Toronto, the Cavaliers employed aggressive defence on Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, forcing him to get the ball out of his hands and rely on team-mates.
Cleveland’s approach has seen defenders fly around much more than in the regular season, but they still yielded 40.5 uncontested field goals per game in the playoffs, including 20.5 from beyond the arc.
Al Horford in particular is positioned to take advantage of open looks when Thomas gets swarmed, with the centre hitting a scorching 58.3 per cent from 3 in the playoffs.
Of course, none of what Boston does on offence will truly matter unless they manage to slow down a red-hot Cavaliers offence, which is currently shooting lights out at 43.4 per cent on 3-pointers, a mark even better than their efficient 39.1 per cent in the regular season.
Boston were the second-best team this season at defending 3s, allowing 31.0 per cent – including 34.8 per cent to Cleveland in four meetings – and they’ve lowered that to 31.0 per cent in the playoffs.
Aside from contesting on the perimeter, the Celtics have their work cut out to stop the Cavaliers in transition.
Boston were often vulnerable on the break against the Wizards, especially after turning the ball over, and the Cavaliers are similarly deadly.
The scales are tilted against the Celtics, but Thomas isn’t ruling out a shock, adding: “The good thing about it is we’ve got home-court advantage, so we’re going to be ready to try to take care of home court.
“We know it’s going to be tough, but at this point, anything can happen. We really believe that.”
With one game on their home floor separating them from the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics are where they want to be.
Boston missed an opportunity to fire the first shot on the road and close out the fiery series with the Washington Wizards in Game 6, but with the deciding contest in their backyard, the Celtics remain in prime position to earn a meeting with Cleveland in the next round.
The home team has won all 10 of the regular season and playoff match-ups between the teams, with both sides performing dramatically different depending on location.
Boston failed to steal a win at the Verizon Center, while struggling with averages of 94.0 points, 40 per cent shooting and a minus-15.7 point differential.
Back home, however, the Celtics are unbeaten in the series, putting up 125.0 points per game on 51.7 per cent shooting and outscoring the Wizards by an average of 14.7.
With Boston and Washington both boasting strong starting lineups, Game 7 may come down to the benches and at TD Garden, the Celtics’ reserves boast a plus-7.5 plus-minus, compared to minus-8.7 for the Wizards.
While home-court advantage doesn’t skew to these extremes, it’s common for teams to shoot better and get more from their role players in their own building. But geography isn’t the only factor favouring the Celtics in Game 7.
After getting walloped in Game 2 and 3 in Washington, Boston has been the better team. They blew out the Wizards at home in a pivotal Game 5 and were a deep John Wall pull-up 3-point miss away from wrapping up the series on the road in the previous outing, despite getting all of five points from their second unit.
Isaiah Thomas hasn’t been the same since dropping 53 points in Game 2, with Washington throwing multiple defenders at him when he’s coming off ball screens. He’s gradually improved at becoming more of a playmaker throughout the series and when he’s not throwing the ball away – like he crucially did up five and close to a minute remaining in Game 6 – he’s been finding open shooters on the perimeter.
Thomas may not need a big effort in Game 7 for Boston to close it out, but Al Horford will almost certainly need to keep playing at a high level. The big man has been nothing short of extremely efficient through the six games, shooting 68.9 per cent overall and 57.1 per cent from deep. When Thomas has been trapped, Horford has helped alleviate pressure with his spacing and passing. Washington has had no answer for him and he, along with back-up big Kelly Olynyk, have the ability to beat Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi off the dribble when played aggressively at the top of the arc.
The Wizards will play in a Game 7 for the first time since the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals (won, 107-105 over the Spurs). pic.twitter.com/MKIwdcZz1B— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 13, 2017
John Wall and Bradley Beal present their own problems, especially in regards to who Thomas will have to defend, and Gortat was a terror on the glass in Game 6 to buy his team extra possessions, but it feels as if the Celtics have made the necessary adjustments over the course of the series.
The issue with a Game 7, however, is that those adjustments may not matter in the same way they would over a multiple-game series. Game 7s can bring out high variance and often, it’s just about execution and making shots. Home court affords Boston the edge, but they still have to make good on that.
“That’s where all the great players make their name,” Celtics star guard Isaiah Thomas said of Game 7. “You gotta give it everything you’ve got. I guess that’s where legends are born. I’m excited.
“To have Game 7 back in Boston in the Garden. If you had said that back in October, that there’d be a Game 7 in the second round, a lot of people probably wouldn’t even believe that. So we’re excited.”