The Eastern Conference Finals began as a series of big swings and injuries and it ended with a tightly contested game 7. Despite the oft-heard commentary that the Celtics led wire-to-wire, the game was anything but a guarantee for the green and gold. Yes, they did lead from start to finish, but not without intense drama down the stretch. The final 3 minutes of the game consisted of a desperate comeback from Miami and a complete lack of offense from the Celtics. The game seemingly hinged on a Jimmy Butler 3-point attempt with just 17 seconds remaining that would have given the Heat their first lead of the contest. Thankfully, the shot bounced out and the Cs were able to hang on by their finger nails and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals vs the Golden State Warriors.
After dispatching the Heat, the Celtics have completed their “revenge tour” through the Eastern Conference. Prior to this year, the previous three teams to eliminate them from the postseason were the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Miami Heat. Now the Celtics can say they were responsible for beating all three teams enroute to their 22nd Finals appearance. The Cs are now just one step away from hanging banner #18 in the TD Garden rafters. As a franchise, the Celtics have been very tough to beat when they reach the Finals, losing just 4 times in those 21 appearances, but they haven’t been there since the 2009-2010 season when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers. This is obviously an entirely different squad from 12 seasons ago when the big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen owned the parquet. The last time the Celtics were in the finals, the core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were in middle school and Smart was early in his high school career. The old man on the team, Al Horford, was in his 3rd season in the NBA that year with the Atlanta Hawks. Now, 141 playoff games later, he’s in the NBA Finals for the 1st time in his career.
Despite being one step from the pinnacle of professional basketball, the Cs aren’t without a few significant concerns. Against the Bucks and Heat, the Celtics had multiple instances of difficulty when trying to close out games. With a pass-first point guard in Marcus Smart, the offense grinds to a halt when the team tries to milk the clock in late-game situations. The Cs need to continue to play their aggressive attacking style, even when they are in situations to kill the clock. No offense to Smart, but he should not be taking the final handful of shots without running the offense when trying to close out a game. The ball needs to run through Tatum and/or Brown and then if it ends up back with Smart or someone else for a shot after a good offensive possession, great. I can almost guarantee the Cs will be in similar situations in the Finals and if they play the way they did in Miami, you can kiss the banner goodbye.
Another concern is around ball control and not making mistakes. There were stretches of the last 2 series when Tatum and Brown were turning the ball over with insane regularity and seemed to be forcing the action which led to more mistakes. Tatum made a number of poor decisions and at times would drive to the basket when their wasn’t a lane, play for contact and a foul rather than finishing the shot, and then complain to the refs when the foul never came. He seemed to be easily thrown off his game when not getting the foul calls and it would take him a while to get back on track. In the Miami series, Tatum was averaging 4.7 turnovers per game and had 3 games of 6+ in the 7 game series and all three of those were losses. Brown also had 7 turnovers in their game 3 loss and 4 in their game 6 loss. If the Cs can take care of the ball and make smart decisions, they are really difficult to beat.
My final issue is around offensive rebounding, especially against smaller lineups. The Heat had a significantly smaller lineup on the floor the majority of the time and the Cs were allowing 11.5 offensive rebounds per game in the series and 40 total rebounds per game, while they were only pulling in 8.5 offensive rebounds and 43.8 rebounds per game. Against a lineup that is significantly smaller, allowing 11.5 offensive rebounds per game is a killer. Even worse, they allowed a total of 40 offensive rebounds in games 4-6 (13.3 per game) and were out-rebounded in 4 of the 7 games in the series, including 2 of their 3 losses. The Cs will have a tougher time with the Warriors on the glass, but if they can limit 2nd chance possessions for the Warriors, their odds of winning the series will increase exponentially.
Now that the Cs have a few days to rest before the finals kick off on Thursday night in San Francisco, I’m hopeful that the pre-game injury report will be more of a formality than a must-see headline. Nearly every game of the Heat series involved more than a few anxious moments as the inactives were announced, for both teams. It was constant chatter around if Marcus Smart and/or Robert Williams would play and be healthy enough to contribute significant minutes. If the entire group can remain healthy for this series, then it will be a lot easier for Ime Udoka to lengthen his rotation and give the starters more rest throughout games. The bench has been terrific for the Cs when the starting 5 is Williams, Horford, Tatum, Brown, and Smart. Having Grant Williams and Derrick White ready to play substantial minutes off the bench and Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis able to spell guys for a handful of minutes a game, it quickly becomes a pretty deep team.
I’ve been saying this for a few months now and will continue to say it: If the Celtics play their best basketball, they can beat anyone in the NBA, including Golden State. The Warriors are a formidable opponent, but the only way the Cs lose the series is if they beat themselves, which has happened too many times this postseason. They’ve matched up against defensive-minded teams the last few rounds and will see another solid defense in the Warriors. The Warriors are a better offense than the Heat and Bucks, but I think the Cs matchup well against their defense. This series has a strong potential to stretch into 6 or 7 games and the longer the series goes, I think the more likely the Cs win.
The Cs split the first 2 on the west coast and ultimately win #18 in 6 or 7 games. I think Robert Williams and Al Horford will have a big impact inside and on the glass, while Jayson Tatum carries the momentum from game 7 against the Heat and proves that he’s a superstar on the biggest stage going toe-to-toe with Steph Curry it the top scorer department. A healthy Marcus Smart will show everyone why he won defensive player of the year and we’ll see significant contributions off the bench from Grant Williams and Derrick White once again. The key takeaway from the series will be that the Cs outlasted the Warriors enroute to the NBA title.