Who doesn't love underdog stories?
*Insert pop culture references here*
After the fall of the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen 'Big 3', the Celtics were forced to hit the reset button. Yet unlike other lottery teams that have gone through a rude dismantling, the franchise was able to stay afloat, thanks to the coaching and front-office masterwork of Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge.
The crowning glory of Boston's improbable run is accidental superstar Isaiah Thomas, who is the sport's version of the Cinderella man. From being the last name to be called in the 2011 draft, the shortest player in the league—listed 5'9"—has emerged as the Celtics' deadliest crunch time scorer, rightfully earning the moniker 'Mr. Fourth Quarter.'
Just when you thought having that Brooklyn Nets pick couldn't get any better, the Celtics then appeared to get over the proverbial hump this year, finally clinching the East's top seed (with a conference-best 53-29 win-loss record). A sloppy finish from the defending champions Cleveland Cavaliers allowed Beantown to secure home-court advantage, at least throughout the Eastern Conference Finals.
All signs point to a storybook ending for Boston...until they met a rampaging Chicago Bulls squad in the opening round of the playoffs. Fred Hoiberg's crew, which owned the tiebreaker over the Miami Heat to sneak into the postseason as the 8th seed, has not only stolen what Boston fought tooth and nail for all-season long, but also built a commanding 2-0 series lead heading to Chi-Town for Game 3.
Suddenly, what worked for the Celtics in the regular season seems to be doing them more harm than good. And having to face their worst matchup in the Bulls ain't helping.
Jimmy Butler is proving to be more unmanageable for the elite wing defense of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Jaylen Brown. Thought to be done for the season, Dwyane Wade is at his most dangerous now that he has shifted into playoff gear. Rajon Rondo, who was out of the rotation at the beginning of the year, just put up a vintage Playoffs Rondo line in Game 2 against his former team: 11 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds, and 5 steals.
Meanwhile, the Bulls bench is doing what is expected from the Celtics reserves. In Game 1, Bobby Portis caught the opposing team off guard with an impressive postseason debut (19 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks); meanwhile in Game 2, Paul Zipser (who?) led Bench Mob 3.0 with an efficient 16 points on 75 percent shooting. Personnel-wise, Chicago, led by its three alphas, is clearly overwhelming Boston's role-player-friendly system.
So far, the showdown is also looking like Space Jam, with the Bulls as the Monstars punishing the Tunes Squad, without Michael's Secret Stuff to help the diminutive Celtics out. Prized acquisition Al Horford is getting no help in the paint against Robin Lopez, Portis, and even Cristiano Felicio (who?). Ironically, Boston's speed and offense couldn't keep up with the Bulls size and defense in the backcourt and perimeter.
Charles Barkley was right when he said, "They're (Celtics) not going to get any bigger."
Although the biggest concern for the guys in green lies in their top player, on whose shoulders they've pinned their hopes. As great a closer as Isaiah is, his consistently going berserk in the fourth quarter magnifies Boston's lack of clutch options. The team's continued over-dependence on the grieving spitfire guard could fast-track its downfall. And with his well-being not exactly "well" on the heels of a family tragedy, the man sorely needs the others to be there for him, off and on the court.
Now is the perfect time for Stevens to bolster his claim for the Coach of the Year award. Ainge, on the other hand, will have to live with his decision of not going after Butler hard enough this past trade deadline.
Maybe the success of team play in this era (e.g. San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors) made the general manager believe that system ball was enough to win it all. What he didn't consider was the fact that those teams featured more than one transcendent star.
Not to say that the Celtics didn't deserve the No. 1 seed, but it was hard to get sold on them being the best team in the East.