There have been times during this unexpectedly turbulent Celtics season when it looked like they had found themselves and were morphing into the Eastern Conference-rampaging juggernaut we expected.
They won eight games in a row from November 26 until December 14, a season-best. But that turned out to be a mirage. None of the teams they played in that run made the playoffs, and they followed the winning streak with consecutive losses to the Pistons, Suns, and Bucks.
More promising was the stretch from January 16 through February 5, when they went 10-1, bookending a pair of five-game winning streaks around an encouraging four-point loss to the Warriors. Then they followed that streak with two of their more annoying losses of the year to the Lakers and Clippers.
While they looked more cohesive at the end of the regular season, they never won more than four in a row at any other point. While cautious optimism seemed the right frame of mind with which to enter the postseason, it also had to be accepted that their enigmatic ways may have been a feature rather than a bug all along.
So here we are now, in the postseason, where the last hope was that they’d “flip the switch’’ and become who we wanted them to be, and suddenly they’re lighting up the room. Their 112-90 evisceration of the Bucks Sunday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series was their fifth win without a loss this postseason.
The fits and starts of this season might make some reluctant to go all-in on them now. I certainly do not expect the Bucks to go quietly. But I’ll tell you this: If they make it six in a row with a second straight win in Milwaukee in Game 2, I’m a believer.
A few thoughts on some individual players who made Game 1 so satisfying for Celtics fans:
Al Horford: It’s not like outstanding playoff performances are anything new from Horford during his three seasons with the Celtics. Even if you were late to the Horford Appreciation Gala – and I think, for some reason, this quintessential Celtic finally won over the last of his stubborn, straggling skeptics this season — a few gems should come immediately to mind. Such as: His near triple-double while shooting 10 of 13 in the Eastern Conference semifinals opener against the Wizards two years ago, his 26-point masterpiece (on 13 of 17 shooting) in Game 7 against the Bucks last year, or his 26-point tormenting of Joel Embiid in the opener against the Sixers in the conference semis last year.
Heck, the best statistical game (per basketball-reference.com’s GameScore measure) came in the playoff opener against the Bucks last year, when he was efficiently extraordinary, hitting 5 of 8 shots, 4 of 6 3s, and 13 of 14 free throws en route to 26 points, while also grabbing 12 rebounds. His GameScore Sunday ranks as just the ninth-best of his Celtics playoff career, but taking his defensive contribution into non-statistical consideration, there is no chance he has ever been better. Horford finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 blocks, including a Karch Kiraly spike of a Giannis Antetokounmpo attempt at the rim that could end up being the lasting visual of this series if the Celtics prevail. If you’ve got a problem with him at this point, the problem, my simple friend, is you.
Kyrie Irving: He’s right, you know. To paraphrase what he said Sunday after his casually dominant 26-point, 11-assist, 7-rebound master class, he can get his shot anytime he wants, and everyone in the building knows it. It left me wondering whether Irving’s history of excellence in tense playoff situations (see: Game 7, 2016 NBA Finals, title-winning shot in Steph Curry’s mug) was somewhat overlooked coming into this series.
Much of the preview chatter was about Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season, and that’s understandable. He is awesome, and no matter what expert troll Paul Pierce says, his presence in this series means it is not over until the final buzzer in the clinching game sounds. But Irving is among the, what, dozen or so players in the league who can single-handedly seize control of a game while also having the wisdom to choose his spots when his teammates are going well. I expect Antetokounmpo to attempt to rampage through the Celtics in Game 2 like Darth Vader at the end of Rogue One. But we know the Celtics can thwart him sometimes, because we’ve already seen it. The Bucks should be worrying about stopping Irving. I see no evidence that they can.
Marcus Morris: Of all of the pleasant surprises and encouraging developments from Game 1, Morris’s willingness to share the ball was the most unexpected. I joked that his kick-out to Terry Rozier for a wide-open 3 was his first pass of the season. It obviously was not – it was probably his 10th or 11th – and he even had a few more nice dishes later in the game. Maybe he took the day off and let Markieff play in his place? Actually, Morris had 109 assists during the regular season; his pass-only-in-case-of-emergency approach led to him finishing ahead of only Robert Williams and Semi Ojeleye and tied with Jaylen Brown for assists-per-36-minutes (1.9). Hubie Brown said on ABC’s broadcast that Morris is a good passer. Maybe, but Sunday brought the first evidence I can recall.
Gordon Hayward: It’s simple, so I’ll keep it short. If he plays like this — aggressive, confident, creative, savvy, all at an All-Star level — anything is possible. Hayward tormented Pat Connaughton for a stretch Sunday like Steph Curry must have done to Seth Curry in their driveway as kids. How can you not be giddy? I never thought we’d see this version of him this year. Wasn’t sure we’d see this version of the Celtics either, but here we are, on the edge of believing in the most rewarding possibilities.