Coming into the 2018 playoffs, not many will care to admit that they did not expect the Boston Celtics to make it this far.
This team dealt with the injury bug all season. 5 minutes into the opening game of the 2017-2018 season, the Celtics coveted free agent signing and 2017 All-Star Gordon Hayward went down with a season-ending injury. As if this wasn’t a big enough blow to the roster, the team was hit hard again in late March when they found out that they would have to compete in the post-season without their star player, Kyrie Irving. An MRI revealed that he needed knee surgery which would make him unavailable for the duration of the playoffs. Although they finished the season as the 2 seed in the East, the team that entered the playoffs was certainly weaker than Boston’s roster at full health.
Despite their high seeding, no series they played was a runaway. Barely escaping the 7 seeded Bucks in the first round, the Celtics were able to advance past the Sixers to play Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the rights for a trip to the NBA Finals.
Before the beginning of the Eastern Conference Finals, there was much controversy over how the series would play out. The luxury of having Lebron James running the Cav’s offense (with the rest of his team feeding off of his exceptional play like a parasite) is a tremendous advantage in itself, one that many believed would be enough to defeat the Celtics considering his postseason experience and his will to win.
This has proved untrue. Boston has taken a commanding 2-0 lead in the series with no signs of slowing down, winning both games by a double-digit margin.
It is uncommon for a team comprised of players with this little experience in the league to perform at this high of a level, let alone in the playoffs against some of the best athletes the world has to offer. Their starting lineup in the series has had an average age of approximately 25 years, compared to almost 32 years for the Cavs lineup.
The key to their success has been their defense. When a player of Lebron James’ caliber drives to the lane, all bets are off and the only goal is to stop him in his tracks. This usually opens up opportunities for bigs down low as well as shooters to spot up behind the arc for an open three. In game 1 of the series, they were able to cut off the flow in Cleveland’s offense by collapsing on Lebron when he drove the lane, while still recovering to contest their shooters. As a result of the hard nose defense played by Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown, James only netted 15 points, only hitting on 5 of 16 total shots. Morris takes great pride in his defensive capabilities against the King, stating that he is “probably the best guy at defending him in the league, outside of Kawhi.” While Lebron did only shoot 3 of 10 when being guarded by Morris in game 1, the effort to stop Lebron has been a team one. Their strategy has been to switch all ball screens to minimize the number of easy scoring opportunities. With a team as versatile and athletic as this one, this method is feasible. They have multiple guys who can guard every position on the floor, including center Al Horford.
The deciding factor that really separates whether they should be considered a legitimate contender or a pretender is their consistency. In the face of adversity, the Celtics have managed to play to their strengths and implement their brand of basketball. It is when teams try to play to their opponents’ weaknesses instead of sticking with their style that has proved effective in the past that breakdowns occur and games, as well as playoff hopes, are lost.
The theme of the Celtics season is just being able to find a way. No matter what cards they are dealt, all that matters is whether or not they can find a way to win on the court. And considering they are undefeated at home this postseason, I would say they have done just that.
Featured Image via USA Today