The Boston Celtics were supposed to be dead in the water when the NBA playoffs began. Yes, they’d enjoyed a nice regular season, earning the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference in spite of an Opening Night injury to Gordon Heyward. But when Kyrie Irving went down…well, any reasonable person would have concluded that was a blow to big to handle. Especially at a time of year that are about veterans and the Celtics would rely heavily on the youthful duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Boston’s survival of a seven-game series with Milwaukee in the first round was nice, but didn’t move the needle when it came to perceptions. But when they came out against the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers and promptly the first game without Brown in the lineup? That raised eyebrows. So did rallying from 22 points down to win Game 2, and then pulling out a road win in Game 3 to all but seal the series.
All that was nice, but LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers were a different animal altogether. Or they were supposed to be. The Celtics blew out the Cavs in Game 1, then survived LeBron’s “heavyweight punch”, to borrow the phrase of head coach Brad Stevens and won Game 2 by double-digits.
What’s going on here? As a Boston fan, I’m thrilled as all get-out, but how on earth is this team winning without its stars at a time of year in the NBA that is all about the stars? Let’s take a look…
*The Celtics have exceptional balance, with four players averaging 17-18ppg for the postseason. The most significant development is Terry Rozier being among them. Rozier has gotten more minutes with Irving out and making the most of it. The numbers alone don’t tell you how many big three-point shots he’s pulled the trigger on during this playoff run.
*The balance extends into team-wide performance. The Celtics are in the top four among the playoff teams for both offensive & defensive efficiency, along with assist-to-turnover ratio. The only stat they aren’t among the best at is rebounding, but even at 8th among the 16 playoff teams, Boston has still rebounded better than Cleveland throughout the postseason.
*Al Horford is a veteran’s veteran, averaging 17/8/4 and his big-game experience was vital in pushing the Celtics past a hungry young Bucks team that had the two best players on the floor (Giannis Antekounpo & Khris Middleton). Horford has shown an aggressiveness in attacking the rim that you often see from veterans who respond to the moment, something that defines the NBA playoffs more than the postseason of any other sport.
*But the Celtic kids have also shown maturity beyond their years. While the 76ers watched Ben Simmons disappear for extended segments, the Celtics watched rookie Jayson Tatum play his best basketball against Philadelphia, the team that passed on the chance to draft him and instead took Markelle Fultz. Tatum averaged 24ppg in that five-game series and Philadelphia will spend their offseason with nightmares of Tatum throwing down an uncontested dunk in the halfcourt offense.
*The first two games of the Cleveland series has seen defense, balance and discipline with the basketball continue to make a difference. In Game 1, the Celts held LeBron and Kevin Love to a combined 10-for-30 shooting. In Game 2, they survived LeBron’s 42/10/12 masterpiece with their balance, along with turning the ball over fewer times as a team (5) than LeBron did individually (6).
I’m not about to jump on the bandwagon that declares the Cavaliers to be dead. At the start of the series, my attitude was to wait and see if the Celtics could split the first four games. If they did it, I’d let myself get excited, but would still predict a Cleveland win. To be frank, I still expect the Cavs to hold serve on their home floor, extend this series the distance and then have to watch LeBron rip our hearts out in a Game 7. But I can tell you this—I’m excited now and in an NBA playoff world renowned for its predictability, this Boston run is one of the unlikeliest things I’ve seen in recent years .