From the get-go, no one outside of Boston and the Celtics die-hards believed a team led by a player who barely stands 5-foot-8 can be a playoff contender. Yet they did.
Even an accomplishment as taking the East’s best record was shot down, giving the Celtics the tag as an unworthy top seed, one of the weakest in recent history—mainly because they lack star power.
See, pundits are fixated on stars, for good reason. The track record of more talented teams speaks for itself. Perhaps the only times in recent history that the superstar-laden squad fell to a less stellar team were in the 2004 and 2011 Finals when the Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks vanquished superteams LA Lakers and Miami Heat, respectively.
But we digress. The point is, the top-seed Celtics team composed of players who are barely recognizable to casual basketball fans were supposedly doomed even before the playoffs began. Quick quiz: Name the Celtics’ usual starting five? Tap yourself on the back, you hoop nerd, if you got it right.
Yet here they are, locked and ready with homecourt advantage to boot, just four wins away from a return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
Doubt, though, naturally comes with the territory for this Celtics squad.
No one believed they could beat the Chicago Bulls in the first round, especially after falling in the first two games. Yet they did.
Critics locked in on the injury of Bulls guard Rajon Rondo as one huge factor for the Celtics to advance. Against the Washington Wizards, the same doubters didn’t give this scrappy Boston squad a chance.
The Celtics knew that, and were in fact driven to prove the doubters wrong, even as the critics grow louder with the looming clash against reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
There’s reasons for the Cavs to be the overwhelming favorites (-$700 to the Celtics +$500 according to Las Vegas bettors) in the ECF. The biggest one is the higher level that an improbably peaking 32-year-old LeBron James has shown in the playoffs.
In sweeping their first two foes, James averaged 34.4 points (his highest since 2009), 9 rebounds, 7.1 assists with 2.8 threes per game on a career-high 46.8 percent shooting. The three-time champ, gunning for a seventh straight trip to the Finals, looked deadlier than ever, especially with the spread of shooters around him when he worked through the pick-and-roll.
Switch and he’ll blow by bigs for an unstoppable drive to the basket or a dish to an open shooter. Put a smaller defender and he can power through or shoot over the poor guard.
He’s no slouch on defense when the Cavs play small too, with 2.1 steals and 1.5 blocks to his stat sheet.
James has just been unreal in this postseason. But you know who else has been equally as stunning in the playoffs? The little guy wearing Celtic green, Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas has been the heart and soul driving this Celtics team through doubt and adversity, overcoming the tragic death of his sister Chyna days before the playoffs began going on a magical run in the postseason.
Game 2 against the Wizards, in particular, where he dropped a playoff-high 53 points, the most since Allen Iverson scored 55 in the 2003 playoffs, was just jaw-dropping. The 27-year-old spitfire guard showed his whole arsenal of moves breaking down double-teams with his handles, sinking unbelievable floaters, and hitting triples in succession.
One thing that the Cavs can do to slow Thomas down, though, is the same trapping defense they did to clamp down Toronto top gun DeMar DeRozan. But the Celtics have proven a deadlier unit than the depleted Raptors.
Avery Bradley has proven Jimmy Butler and the Bulls wrong in underestimating his offensive prowess. Al Horford has been solid as the team’s top rebounder and second highest scorer and assists man. And the bench, led by Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart, has given Boston ample firepower with anyone capable of dropping double-digits at any given time along with their usual hustle stats expected from this scrappy bunch.
There’s also the case of the Cavs three-point shooting, which has led all teams in the playoffs with 14.4 triples per game on a 43% clip. The Celtics are not far behind with 13.1 treys per outing. But what works for Boston is its stingy three-point shooting defense, holding opponents to just 31% from beyond the arc.
The personnel has a lot to do with their success as the Celtics hardly switch on the pick-and-roll. When they do, they have highly athletic players ready to stay on their man despite the mismatch or close out on shooters.
In terms of matchups, Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown have the unenviable challenge of guarding James, but they are physically up to the task. So is Boston’s backcourt of Bradley, Smart and Terry Rozier who can make things tough for Kyrie Irving.
The problem lies with the bigs and rebounding, something Bulls center Robin Lopez has exploited in the first round. Kevin Love, who dominated Boston with 23.7 points and 13 rebounds in three games, and elite rebounder Tristan Thompson could give the small Celtics problems down low.
This is where the ‘In Brad We Trust’ belief comes to play. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has had significant tweaks in each of their two playoff matchups to help limit Boston’s weaknesses. Against the Bulls, he came out with a smaller lineup, starting Gerald Green, who ultimately made an impact for the series.
Against the Wizards, Olynyk stepped up when the Celtics could not afford to go small against a rough Washington frontcourt.
It remains to be seen what Stevens has up in his sleeves against the Cavs, but he has proven in his time with Boston that he’s a master of adjustments the same way other coaching greats in the league have done.
The odds are against the Celtics making out in this one. The chips—Thomas neutralizing James’ output on offense, the bench clicking, Horford and the Boston bigs holding its own against the Cavs frontline—must fall in place for the East top seeds to have a chance at dethroning the champs. By the way, the franchise’s record for Game 7s at home is 18-4. Just saying.
Boston has done and continues to do improbable feats all season long. This ECF could be no exception, turning that ‘No way’ criticism into a battlecry all the way to the top.