The Boston Celtics are who we thought they were, the former NFL coach Dennis Green might say. If you want to crown ’em, then crown their — ah, never mind. But at least for the moment, Boston, after a methodical, workmanlike sweep of a resilient Indiana Pacers team in the first round, reflected the team that many preseason observers thought would waltz their way to the NBA Finals.
On one hand, this was the kind of series that should have been expected. Indiana, plenty scrappy during the season, was missing its best player, the flashy two-way swingman Victor Oladipo. Even with him, Indiana did not have the top-shelf depth that Boston possesses. Boston was not quite dominant, but the series was rarely in doubt, especially with the Pacers’ propensity for offensive droughts.
On the other hand, this is a Celtics team that was blown out several times by lesser teams during an underwhelming regular season that left many questioning how overrated they were in the first place. Of particular concern was the team’s spectacular penchant for blowing leads. In a two-game stretch in February, Boston gave up an 18-point lead in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and a 28-point lead in a loss to the L.A. Clippers. Weeks later, the Celtics let a nearly 20-point fourth quarter lead dissipate against Charlotte. Several other times, Boston showed a lack of cohesion, effort, discontent or all of the above.
But against the Pacers, the Celtics played their best basketball in the fourth quarter. In Game 2, Boston came back from a double-digit deficit to overwhelm the Pacers by 32-12 in the last 12 minutes. The next game, the Celtics outscored the Pacers by 16-9 in the final six minutes. Finally, in the elimination game, the Celtics extended a 1-point lead entering the final frame to 11, before eventually winning by 110-106. The defensive rotations were like clockwork.
Tatum slams it home following the ridiculous steal by Kyrie in today's Play of the Game! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/7fDSD0NBTD
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 21, 2019
They did so with Kyrie Irving and Al Horford combining to shoot 8 for 32 from the field, and neither hitting a shot in the last quarter. Instead, Gordon Hayward — looking like the All-Star the Celtics were hoping for when they signed him — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier all pitched in to fill the gap, on offense and defense. Seven players reached double figures in scoring, and the vaunted depth that was so touted in the preseason — with five skill players on the court most of the time who can shoot, defend and create their own shot — was on full display.
“They’re a deep team,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said in his postgame news conference. “They showed tonight that Irving is not the only player on that roster.”
To that end, Irving’s first playoff series with the Celtics was a mixed bag, at least in terms of his shooting. He exploded in Game 2 for 37 points on 26 shots. But in the other three games, Irving was just 17 for 49 from the field (35%) — partly a result of the Pacers’ defense keying on him.
The question now is which version of the Celtics will show up for the second round. The only way the Celtics do not face the Milwaukee Bucks next is if a meteor hits Earth. (I am legally obligated by The New York Times Standards Department to tell you that there is a chance the Detroit Pistons can come back and win that series. This won’t happen. But rules are rules.)
The Bucks are a juggernaut, and the Celtics will need to play much better than they did against the Pacers in order to advance to the conference finals. Milwaukee had the league’s best defense and were the fifth-best offensive team during the regular season. This is not a team likely to give up double-digit leads or have its offense disappear. The Celtics’ margin of error will be minimal, and the occasional regressions they endured against Indiana would hand the series to Milwaukee.
The Bucks are led by one of the fearsome players in recent history, and the probable winner of this year’s Most Valuable Player Award: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Coach Mike Budenholzer, building the team around Antetokounmpo, transformed the plodding Bucks, who were 20th in the NBA in pace last year, into the league’s fifth-fastest team. During the regular season, Milwaukee beat the Celtics twice in three matchups — and the Bucks’ defense flustered Irving, who had .479 true shooting percentage across those games, well short of his season average of .592.
Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Eurostep pic.twitter.com/DiHDBgwSXQ
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 21, 2019
This is a vastly different Bucks team from the one the Celtics eliminated last year in seven games. But the Celtics are different as well. They have Irving, a player with serious postseason credentials, and Hayward. They won’t have Marcus Smart, their dogged guard, for at least part of the series because of a quadriceps injury, which will hamper their defensive flexibility, but the team’s depth should still be an advantage over Milwaukee. And the Celtics have evolved even since dropping that game against the Hornets in March.
For one thing, Hayward (who posted true shooting percentages of .644, .623, and .762 in February, March and April), is looking the best he has looked in a Celtics uniform. He’s slashing with more confidence, and other than a vicious dunk by Myles Turner on Sunday, Hayward repeatedly challenged the bigger, younger Turner, getting past him for multiple difficult layups. Hayward, who finished with a team-leading 20 points off the bench, also had a strong dunk of his own, but it was wiped away because of an offensive foul.
“Physically, I feel way better now than I did at the beginning of the season,” Hayward said after the game.
But he added that the uptick in the quality of his play was partly a result of familiarity: “I think more than anything, though, just having the reps and having experience with this team and getting a chance to play with these guys and start to figure out strengths.”
So now the Celtics will embark on a task they have not achieved all season: sustaining great play. If they can’t pair their effort with the talent on the roster, the Bucks will devour them. By extension, this will alter the fate of several players on the roster who may find themselves on different teams next year.
As Brown told NBA TV in a postgame interview, “Everything is on the line right now.”