Celtics Show Strength and Wear Down Bucks in Game 7

If you are a fan of NBA basketball, the Celtics vs Bucks series had it all. It was filled with glorious comebacks, superstar performances, unlikely heroes, awful refereeing, and grueling defense on both sides. From the opening tip, the series was a test of wills and thanks to a deeper roster, the Boston Celtics were able to knock off the defending champs convincingly in game 7 to take the series. Now the Celtics will make their 21st appearance in the conference finals, the 2nd most of any franchise all-time. Let’s take a look at how the Celtics got here.

Heading into their conference semi-final date with the Bucks, the Cs absolutely crushed the Brooklyn Nets in a 4-game sweep. While Boston was obviously favored in that matchup, they faced some tough individual matchups. The Cs were able to shut down Kevin Durant at times and weather big scoring numbers from Kyrie Irving in order to take care of business. The Celtics defense showed that when they needed to clamp down, they could stifle the Nets offense and force them into a tough shot. In the NBA, it’s really hard to actually shut down a star with your defense, but if you can force a top-tier player into a tougher shot, it will benefit the team overall. That philosophy worked against the Nets, but against Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s easier said than done.

The Cs got slapped with a quick dose of reality when Milwaukee crushed them in game 1. Their defense was not good enough to limit Giannis (triple-double) and allowed 25 points to Jrue Holiday. The Cs got outscored in 3 of 4 quarters and after holding a lead early in 2nd quarter, never really sniffed it again. Behind a 30-spot from Jaylen Brown, game 2 was a reverse of game 1, with a 23-point Cs win to even the series and salvage a game at home. The Cs held Giannis to 28-points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, which for most players would be an epic performance, but not for Antetokounmpo. Game 3 was the first actual close game of the series, with an absolutely electric finish. After taking the lead with about a minute left for the first time since early in the 2nd half, a Giannis basket, Jaylen Brown miss, and Holiday basket led to a 3-point lead for the Bucks with 11.2 seconds left. After drawing a foul, Marcus Smart stepped to the line and hit the first free throw to bring the game within two. Down two, with one free throw to go and just 4.6 seconds remaining, Marcus Smart intentionally missed off the rim and a frantic series of missed shots and offensive rebounds ensued, ending with an Al Horford tip in coming just a fraction of a second after the buzzer leading to a 103-101 victory for the Bucks.

Game 4 was the Al Horford game. It’s arguably his best postseason game as a professional basketball player and potentially one of his best overall performances. Horford scored 30 points, secured 8 rebounds, distributed 3 assists and was a +20 in the 8-pt win for the Celtics. Horford was an absolute beast after Giannis gave him a long stare-down following a dunk that led to a technical foul on the Greek Freak. Horford was an absolute monster, taking over the game in a way we’ve really never seen before and it’s because of him that the series was tied after 4 and a best of 3. After a game 5 victory for the Bucks thanks to a disastrous final few minutes from Marcus Smart and a few great plays from Jrue Holiday, the Celtics’ backs were against the wall needing 2 straight Ws. If game 4 was the Horford game, game 6 was the Jayson Tatum game. Tatum was absolutely dominant in game 6 on the road, dropping 46 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and was a +21. The Celtics took a 10-pt halftime lead and never let the Bucks back in the game fully, holding the lead for the final 3 quarters. That setup a game 7 in Boston for all the marbles.

Looking back, the Celtics not tanking for an easier path in the postseason and the #3 seed, set them up for home court in game 7, which proved to be quite useful. The first half of the game was a difference in quarters, with the Bucks taking the first by 6 and then the Celtics punching back in the 2nd. Thanks to a game-changing shift late in the 2nd quarter, the game swung handily in the Cs direction. After a basket from Bobby Portis, the Bucks were up 43-42 with about a minute left in the first half. Grant Williams hit one of his 7 big 3s to take the lead at 45-43. After Tatum picked up his 3rd foul and Holiday missed a 3, the Cs had the ball with 25 seconds remaining. Brown missed a jumper with 8.4 seconds remaining and the Bucks had a chance to tie or take the lead before half, but Marcus Smart had a great defensive play, forced the turnover on Giannis followed by a foul on Giannis, his 3rd. Beyond that, Smart went up for a shot as Giannis fouled him, giving him 3 free throws. Smart hit all 3 and the Celtics walked into halftime with momentum, 3 fouls on Giannis, and a 5-point lead at home in game 7. While there was 24 minutes of basketball remaining, the court felt tipped in the Cs direction and the beginning of the 2nd half proved that as the Cs pulled further out in front after an 8-2 run and never looked back, crushing the Bucks by 28.

Now, the Celtics find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. The Celtics continue a revenge tour of sorts, since the last three teams to beat them in the postseason over the years have been the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and you guessed it, the Miami Heat. The Heat reached the finals by beating the Atlanta Hawks in 5 games, then shutting down the Philadelphia 76ers in 6 games. The Heat have been led by Jimmy Butler, who is averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game this postseason. In terms of scoring, the Heat have 5 players averaging double-figures in the postseason, besides Butler, Bam Adebayo (14.6), Tyler Herro (13.8), Max Strus (12.5), and Victor Oladipo (11.4) have all been contributing to the team’s 107.1 points per game. Most of that scoring is without Kyle Lowry, who has only played in 5 of their 11 games this postseason, but could potentially be back at some point against the Celtics. As of writing this, he is unlikely to play in Game 1.

The main thing that the Heat and Celtics both bring to the table is defense. This postseason, the Heat are 1st in points allowed per game and the Celtics are 3rd, which could make this a low-scoring battle of a series for both teams. During their 3 regular season matchups, defense at the forefront, so it will be interesting to see which team can create more opportunities on the offense-end with limited space.

Bring on the Heat!

Celtics Display Integrity by Not Tanking

As the tie-breaker and Eastern Conference standings became clearer the past few weeks, there were really only two scenarios for the Celtics: 2nd or 3rd place in the conference. That alone is a masterful feat given how the first two months of the season went for the green. Most predicted they would finish between 4th and 7th in the conference and wouldn’t really be competing for the top 3 spots. After half the season, those predictions didn’t feel too far off as the Cs held a .500 team record. Luckily for the fans (and Ime Udoka), the Cs finished the season hotter than anyone in the NBA with a 51-31 overall record. Sitting with a few games remaining, the media surmised that the Cs had two choices: to win and take 2nd, potentially setting up a tough 1st round matchup with the 7-seed Brooklyn Nets (if they win the play-in game) or to tank and guarantee a 1st round series against the extremely beatable 6-seed Chicago Bulls. The Celtics chose to believe in themselves and pounded the Memphis Grizzlies in the final regular season game to secure 2nd in the Eastern Conference.

While I didn’t expect the Cs to tank, it’s not uncommon in the NBA for teams to rest stars knowing that the players on the court are going to have a tough time winning. Coaches hide behind the “rest day” or “maintenance day” mantra in those scenarios and while sometimes I’m sure it’s legitimate, it doesn’t feel great as a fan. Udoka, and probably Brad Stevens, made the right decision in my opinion to put their best team on the floor to try and win #51. Trying to control for a specific situation that isn’t even guaranteed is not a great approach.

You can run from teams, and they don’t even end up being there. What we concluded was: Let’s do what we do and let the chips fall where they may.

Celtics Head Coach Ime Udoka before Sunday’s regular season finale

This Celtics team isn’t, and shouldn’t be, afraid of anyone. Yes, the Nets would be a tougher matchup than the Bulls, but if this C’s team is so worried about a first round opponent that they would consider tanking to move down, then they have already lost. The play on the court matches the aspirations of this group: a deep playoff run. They’ve beaten the best teams in the NBA during this 2nd half stretch and based on all the coach and player comments after the game, they don’t care who is in front of them. If they really want to be playing into June, then they will need to beat some of the best teams in the league and frankly a higher seed could be more beneficial down the road. An easier path isn’t necessarily the best path.

The Cs performance against the Grizzlies in game #82 was perfectly representative. Memphis is 2nd in the Western Conference and a formidable opponent, despite their make-shift lineup with nothing to play for. The green didn’t take them lightly and rode a 72-pt first half performance to a 139-110 victory. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 49 points, while Al Horford dropped 13 on 75% shooting (6-8) and Daniel Theis had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. The Cs were able to bring 9 guys off the bench, all playing 5+ minutes and contributing with points, which was exactly what you want to see in the final game of the season. The loss of Time Lord, aka Robert Williams III, for at least some part of the playoffs isn’t ideal, but there is a lot to like about this team. They have depth, veteran leaders and a heart to match.

Now that the regular season is over, the Celtics have a full week to get some rest and prep for their first round opponent. On Tuesday night, we’ll know if it’s the Brooklyn Nets or the Cleveland Cavaliers and that winner will come to the TD Garden next Sunday as the Celtics tip-off what they hope will be a long and fruitful playoff run. Regardless of the outcome, the team’s decision to go out and play hard rather than tank is the right move in my book.

Celtics Continue Red Hot Streak 🔥

After a big win against Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night, the Celtics moved to 13-2 in their past 15 games. They are running on all cylinders and playing extremely well as a team while racking up the Ws, continuing to build on their solid January and incredible February records. Ime Udoka has the green playing well, even when key pieces are missing from the lineup (i.e. Jaylen Brown on Thursday) and they are looking more and more like a team that could make a strong and potentially deep playoff push. It’s been a fun turnaround for the Cs after a rough start to the season and now there are 16 games left in the regular season to see how high they can rise in the standings.

The home cooking has been good to the Celtics this year. They are 22-11 at the TD Garden on the season, while just 16-16 on the road. It’s not a shocking revelation that a team plays better at home than on the road, but it’s worth noting that the Celtics are now at .500 on the road. Through the first 40 games of the season, the Cs were just 7-13 on the road and struggling against both good and bad teams. In their last 12 road games, the Celtics are 9-3 and have been playing much better basketball. They had the benefit of a few games in Detroit and a game in Orlando, but beating a mediocre team on the road is still an important W. The Cs have 2 road trips remaining this season (not including 2 one-off road games against Charlotte and Toronto), including a 4-game stint in mid-March that includes the Golden State Warriors and a tough and potentially season defining 3-game trip to end the regular season against teams in the top 4 of their conference, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Memphis.

Thanks to a big loss for Cleveland at home against Charlotte, the Cs have moved into 5th place in the Eastern Conference and are just 1 game behind the Bucks and 2 games behind the 76ers and Bulls who are in 2nd and 3rd in the league respectively. The top of the Eastern Conference is pretty jam-packed, with the top 6 separated by only 5 games. For reference, in the Western Conference the top 6 teams are separated by 14 games. The green have already finished their season series with the 76ers and split 2-2, but they have important opportunities with head-to-head matchup against the other teams in front of them in the standings. For now, the Celtics just need to keep winning and hope for stumbles from the teams ahead of them in the standings to put themselves in the best position once the playoffs begin.

It seems the Celtics have found their identity over the last stretch of games, with balanced offense and top-tier defense. They have been working hard to create good shot opportunities, especially down the stretch and are getting offensive contributions nightly from different parts of their roster not named Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (when healthy). On Thursday night Al Horford had his best performance of the season offensively to help lift the Cs over the really strong Grizzlies with 21 points and the night before against Atlanta, Grant Williams and Derrick White both dropped 18pts in the victory. Generally, the Celtics are middle of the pack offensively, but have looked much stronger these past few weeks, exceeding their average points per game this year (109.3) in 5 of their last 7 games. The eye-test tells me that they look confident and should continue to roll.

Defensively, the Cs are continuing to sit near the top of the NBA in many categories. The allow the 3rd fewest points per game for their opponent, have held opponents to the 4th lowest 3pt percentage, and have held opponents to the lowest number of assists per game in the league. Their ability to rebound, especially on the defensive end, has been huge. The Cs currently sit 3rd in the NBA in rebounds per game at 46.5 and were able to outrebound the best rebounding team in the NBA on Thursday. It’ll be critically important that the Celtics are strong on the defense and limit 2nd chance possessions if they want to beat the top teams in the NBA and move up in the conference standings.

Things are looking up for the Celtics, but with several tough games left on the calendar, the verdict is still out.

Trader Brad Strikes Again

To say this offseason has been eventful for the Boston Celtics is an understatement. Beginning with the surprising promotion of Brad Stevens to GM following the retirement of Danny Ainge, there has been a roster rebuild and restructure including several trades and player moves. While there is obviously still time to make more changes, it’s time to take a glance at the new-look Celtics roster.

Guards

In:

Out:

The group of guards and guard depth looks quite different for the Celtics going into the 2021 season. The first big move of the offseason was to unload Kemba Walker’s salary with a 1st and 2nd round pick for Al Horford and Moses Brown. While it saved salary, it opened up a glaring hole at point guard. It appeared they were considering a PG replacement by bringing in fan favorite Kris Dunn, only to trade him away for Juan Hermangomez. The PG move in the middle of trading for and trading away Dunn was free agent Dennis Schroder. We all know the story by now, but Schroder bet on himself and turned down a big extension from the Los Angeles Lakers only to find no market and sign for peanuts in comparison with the Celtics. The value is definitely there for the almost 28-yr old PG.

As often as Walker was injured, they got worse at the PG this offseason. I anticipate they will use Schroder, along with Payton Pritchard as a ball handler, with some Marcus Smart mixed in. Pritchard could very well take the next step and be a strong NBA PG, but he’s yet mostly unproven and other than Summer League and Pro-Am games, hasn’t consistently shown he can handle NBA competition.

As far as the SG is concerned, the Celtics lost Evan Fournier and brought in Josh Richardson, which depending on which you prefer, is either a wash or a slight downgrade. Fournier didn’t play a ton last year for the Cs and appeared in just 42 games combined with Orlando, but he had his best year shooting the 3 (41%). Richardson is not as strong of a shooter in general and gives up 2 inches on Fournier. All-in-all, I think this group has gotten slightly worse, but with Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart untouched as the top guards, I’m not sure the difference is significant enough.

Forwards

In:

Out:

Where I think the Celtics improved this offseason is in the small/power forward spots. The Cs parted ways with Tristan Thompson after the season, who was mostly a flop during his tenure with the franchise. Brad brought in 2 really interesting pieces to fill out the forward depth. Bruno Fernando is an interesting wild card that I think could be fun to watch. He’s not going to score a ton, but could give you a spark off the bench as a small center or power forward.

Most recently Brad traded away Kris Dunn and Carsen Edwards to bolster this group by bringing in Juan Hernangomez. Brad dealt from a position of depth and excess to add to a position of need and Hernangomez should add depth at the 4 as a 6’9″ body who can shoot a bit when called upon. He’s not going to wow anyone or put up huge numbers, but he is a solid piece off the bench. He joins Grant Williams and Jabari Parker in the power forward group and becomes, with Fernando, the tallest of that group. I definitely think the Cs got better in their forward depth.

Centers

In:

Out:

For my money, this is by far the best improvement on the roster. Lacking any real center depth last year, the Cs need support behind the newly resigned Robert Williams III. The Celtics did just that by bringing back fan favorites Al Horford and Enes Kanter to stuff the paint and mentor Williams. Horford is 35 and how much he has left in the tank is TBD, but Kanter is a great change of pace off the bench. They both love being in Boston and at very least, it’s age and experience depth which can be super valuable.

On top of those two, Brad let Tacko Fall go and brought in another 7-footer in Luke Kornet. As sad as it was to watch Fall leave the Celtics, Kornet is probably an upgrade. The question becomes who actually ends up on the final roster and if all 4 guys have roster spots.

Overall

While it’s a bit difficult to see the final layout of the roster, especially considering I wouldn’t be shocked if trader Brad is still looking for deals, but I think overall the depth on this team is stronger than it was last year. There are still plenty of questions on the starting lineup and I think there are definitely drop-offs in talent in the backcourt, but improvements in the frontcourt. Let’s see what this team looks like when the season tips off in just under 7 weeks.

Trader Brad: The Beginning of the Stevens Era

The move to hire Brad Stevens as the next Boston Celtics GM was a surprise. Danny Ainge stepping away at the beginning of June wasn’t too surprising, but promoting the 44-year old Indiana-native to that role opened up a ton of questions about his experience and ability to jump into that role when the roster needed some work right away. Now two months into his job, he’s been active on the trade market and appears to be working toward a larger vision with more moves in the pipeline.

After 6 years as an assistant coach at Butler, Stevens took over the head coaching role in 2007. He was successful at getting the most out of his players at a strong mid-major college program with two back-to-back NCAA Finals appearances (2010 lost to Duke and 2011 lost to UConn) which led to NBA teams sniffing around. In 2013, the Celtics convinced him to leave the college coaching life in his home state and take over one of the most successful NBA franchises in history.

In his 8 years at the helm of the Celtics, Stevens had a .557 winning percentage and won NBA Coach of the Month three times. He took the Celtics into the playoffs in 7 of his 8 years and to the conference finals three times, but couldn’t break through for a title. After a disappointing 2020-2021 season, the critics were calling for his job and wondering if he could take the next step. Then Danny Ainge stepped aside.

After hiring Ime Udoka as the next Celtic’s head coach, Brad Stevens got to work on the roster. He started by trading former UConn star G Kemba Walker and the 16th pick in this year’s draft to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Celtics fan-favorite C/F Al Hortford, C Moses Brown and a 2023 second round pick. The Celtics needed to move on from Walker, but the trade got mixed reviews despite being primarily a salary dump. Celtics fans liked the idea of having Horford back, but what does he have left in the tank? Moses Brown would be a nice pickup, but has already been shipped off as part of another trading frenzy.

Next, Brad shipped out mostly disappointing C/PF Tristan Thompson for Providence product and long-time crush of Celtics fans G Kris Dunn, C Bruno Fernando, and a 2nd round 2023 pick from the Atlanta Hawks. Then he flipped the previously traded for C Moses Brown to the Dallas Mavericks for veteran G Josh Richardson.

There are a lot of rumors floating around that Brad is far from done. Even though Celtics fans have wanted to see Kris Dunn in the green since he was drafted two spots behind Jaylen Brown in 2016, Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach has been reporting that the Cs are looking to move Kris Dunn to save some cap space just days after he was shipped to Boston. The other rumors surround a bunch of former C’s players and potential returns. I’m guessing Stevens is on the phone non-stop at this point trying to make a few more moves to free up some cap room to replace G/F Evan Fournier.

Only time will tell what Stevens will be like as a GM, but he’s started with a lot of trade activity and more to come. He’s certainly not afraid to make a move.