The Boston Celtics are four wins away from kicking LeBron James out of Cleveland, again.
Easier said than done, of course, after watching The King of the North push the Raptors to extinction, with James nearly matching the output of Toronto’s All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Unreal, right?
But you know what’s more unthinkable? That these Celtics, without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, reached this point, back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the era of the OG Boston Big Three in the 1980s (if you can name them, you’re a certified tito).
Yes, this lineup of a bunch of names casual NBA fans won’t even recognize are back in the East finals, with a monumental task of doing what 23 other Eastern Conference teams in the past eight years have failed to do—beat LeBron in a playoff series.
But with what they’ve shown so far in this year’s NBA playoffs, it’s safe not to count this scrappy Celtic squad out in this East finals rematch. One reason stands out, one that shined brighter in the evisceration of the Philadelphia 76ers: the coaching brilliance of Brad Stevens.
Taken to the limit by a talented Milwaukee Bucks team in the first round, the Celtics were the natural underdogs against a Sixers squad that closed the regular season on a 20-3 run and manhandled the Miami Heat in their own first-round battle.
Yet the Celtics—without Jaylen Brown in Game 1, trailed by 22 in Game 2, fell behind by five late in overtime in Game 3—went on to take a 3-0 lead against a Sixers team teeming with talent led by the unicorn that is Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Ben Simmons. The main culprit: Stevens.
His college players from Butler have long praised how Stevens was a master in details, which make his celebrated after-timeout (ATO) plays so successful. Check out the game-winning play in Game 3:
Stevens plays down this sequence, or the praise of his ATO wizardry, saying it has been something he’s been doing since his years in Butler—and it’s not uniquely his own play as he admits to stealing tactics "from everyone else" in a 2016 interview with Wall Street Journal.
But there’s more to Stevens taking the mantle of master strategist than just his ATO plays. Sixers coach Brett Brown unlocked Simmons’s potential with a lineup of shooters around the shooting-averse "rookie" against the Heat. The Celtics coach, though, turned this strength as Philadelphia’s glaring weakness.
The Celtics defense sagged off Simmons each time he handled the ball in the halfcourt set like he had a bad case of halitosis, taking away his playmaking ability and daring him to shoot. With versatile and agile defenders, Boston also switched at every screen to hound the Sixers shooters.
In the regular season, Philadelphia was among the top 10 in three-point accuracy, and even reached top 5 status with 38% shooting from beyond the arc approaching the postseason. Against Boston’s switching defense, Philadelphia shot a season-low 31% from deep. And the misery didn’t end just on offense for the Sixers shooters. The Celtics went instant attack mode each time, attacking the mismatch on defense against whomever JJ Redick or Marco Belinelli was guarding.
Another ploy by Stevens is playing Embiid one-on-one, thanks to excellent but underrated post-up defenders in Al Horford and Aron Baynes, which kept the Celtics defense composed even when at times the Sixers star big man had his moments of brilliance.
By the time Brown made his own adjustments—putting TJ McConnell on playmaking duties alongside Simmons, who also started putting his head down and drive hard with no hesitation—the Celtics were already up 3-0.
Three of Boston’s four wins over the Sixers were come-from-behind victories, which speaks volumes not just of Stevens’ excellent coaching but also of the grit of the young Celtics. It’s fair to mention the roles of players like rookie Jayson Tatum playing beyond his age and leading the team in scoring, Horford stepping up his scoring in the playoffs along with the intangibles he brings, "Scary Terry" Rozier turning Drew, err, Eric Bledsoe and every Sixer point guard obsolete, Brown taking another leap forward in his development, and Marcus Smart providing the heady plays on both ends in making Stevens look even more brilliant.
Outsmarting a talented but inexperienced team in the Sixers, though, is a different story compared to besting a LeBron-led team that has ruled the East for seven straight years. The main difference, of course, is James.
The Celtics had trouble slowing down Bucks top wingman Giannis Antetokounmpo, and it’s not hard to see LeBron feasting on Boston’s defenders better than the Greek Freak ever did. Brown and Tatum are not strong enough to handle the Cavs star, Horford and Marcus Morris are not agile enough for the task as well. If any of these players end up in foul trouble, the Celtics short rotation, now without backup point guard Shane Larkin, gets even shorter.
Still, there remains a glimmer of hope for the Celtics as long as Stevens is there, figuring out the details and plotting his adjustments. For sure, Kyle Korver and Kevin Love won’t be as effective as they were against the Raptors. One can also expect Boston to attack these two sub-par defenders the same way they did Redick and Belinelli. The Cavs defense remains leaky as always, giving up a bit over 110 points a game in the second round. And the Celtics have homecourt edge, yet to lose a game in Boston in this postseason.
The Cavs have never looked as vulnerable as they are now. Problem is, all challengers to the Eastern throne so far have fallen short against the dominance of James. The Celtics, valiant as they have shown, may not have enough to complete the task. Yet it’s not impossible or improbable. All this odds-defying Boston squad ever needed, really, was another shot at the King—and hopefully this time they don’t miss.