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.

Hotter than Hot: The Boston Celtics Story

If you had told me in December that the Boston Celtics would be the hottest team in 2022 and look like serious championship contenders I would have laughed and told you to stop dreaming. The first 3 months of the season were in a word, uninspiring. The team was losing close games, blowing 4th quarter leads, and seemed to be completely lacking leadership and a fire to win. They were 17-19 when 2021 turned to 2022 and it certainly seemed like the Ime Udoka coaching tenure in Boston would not be a long one. To be fair, there were lots of injury and COVID issues, but even with a depleted roster at times the team was vastly under performing. Then January came and a switch flipped.

In 2022, the Celtics are 29-9 and have improved consistently since January. On January 7th, the Celtics were in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with an 18-21 record, only ahead of the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, and Orlando Magic. They were 1 game behind the New York Knicks and 9 games back of 1st place in the conference, with a +1 scoring differential. Since that day, the Celtics are 28-7, have increased their scoring differential to be the best in the East at +6.6, and are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks just 1 game behind the Miami Heat (the C’s have played 2 more games than the 76ers and Bucks, so have a slightly lower win percentage). Even more impressively, they are 23-4 since January 23rd and are showing no signs of slowing down with 8 games to go.

The starters are hot, the bench players are hot and the coaching and leadership has been spot on. It’s hard to argue that there is a tougher team in the league to play right now and if they continue to play this well going into the playoffs, the sky is the limit. It’s absolutely cliche and absolutely accurate in this scenario. The consistent high-level of play right now allows them to match up with anyone, because you try to shut one player down, another will beat you. The depth of the roster is really showing as a strength right now. The Cs have size and strength inside, talented scorers and defenders at the guard position and talented wing players who can pose serious mis-match problems for opponents. Oh yeah, and they have one of the best players in basketball right now in Jayson Tatum who can drop 50 on a night when the team needs him to dominate. It feels like Tatum and Jaylen Brown have stepped up as leaders on and off the court and have led by example, which has been huge.

It’s a great time to be a fan of the green. The keys down the stretch? Stay healthy, keep playing at a high-level, and get as close to the top seed in the Eastern Conference as possible. Simple, right?

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.