By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In the past two decades, Boston has come to be known as the city of champions. And though the Celtics were but a one-time contributor in that renaissance which has seen 10 titles won across the four major sports since February 2002, they are still the gold standard in the NBA with 17 championships. The quest for Banner 18 has driven all of the work done by Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens over the past four years.
So why, then, is it generally accepted that even after a dramatic seven-game series win over the Washington Wizards, the Celtics stand little chance against LeBron James and the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers?
Why are fans and media applauding the Celtics for achieving their goal already when there are still games to be played? Why is any further success considered “gravy” and why is the city not champing at the bit to bring another title home?
The answer? Well, it’s because in addition to being demanding of championships, people around here are pretty smart. And to expect or demand anything more out of the Celtics would be to simply act without reason.
Now, that’s not to say the Celtics have no chance whatsoever against the defending champions who are 8-0 thus far in the playoffs. Surely, there is a reason the games are played, and this Celtics team has come up with a number of inspiring victories over superior teams in the past two seasons.
Instead, it is merely a recognition that the Cavaliers won three of their four games against the Celtics this season, most recently by way of a 23-point beatdown on Boston’s court. It is an acknowledgment that LeBron James is averaging 34.4 points per game this postseason, the second-best mark of his Hall of Fame career. It is an understanding that Kyrie Irving is also averaging 23.8 points per game, giving the Cavs a 58-point-per-game one-two punch. (By contrast, Isaiah Thomas’ 25.4 points and Al Horford’s 16.1 points give the Celtics 41.5 points per game from their two most productive scorers.) It is a cognizance of the Cavs’ shooting 49 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from 3-point range, both of which are the best such marks in the NBA this postseason. It is an awareness that the Cavs went from a four-point average margin of victory in round one to a 12.8-point margin of victory in the second round as they appear to be getting better as time goes on.
It’s an understanding that in the NBA, in a seven-game series, the better team usually wins.
Yet, on the heels of a most-surprising surge from Kelly Olynyk, the atmosphere in Boston is not one of doom as everyone awaits the impending death march. Instead, the picture is rather bright.
For one, there is the Celtics’ underdog status (even as a one-seed), which is never a bad thing to have in professional sports. It’s surely something that the often-overlooked and underestimated Thomas has used as motivation his whole life.
“We gotta get ready for the defending champs. We know that,” Thomas said after a 29-point, 12-assist showing in Game 7. “We know it’s going to be tough but at this point anything can happen, and we really believe it. They didn’t give us a chance in this series. They didn’t give us a chance when we were down 2-0 in Chicago. We got the No. 1 seed and they didn’t give us a chance. They don’t ever give us a chance and we just keep going. We don’t care about what others say.”
Clearly, that last part is a lie, but in the right way.
Given the Celtics’ current situation — namely, lacking a top-5 NBA talent — it will be considered immensely successful if they’re able to just stretch the series to six. Again, such a modest goal doesn’t fit in with the championship mantra of Boston, but it is an acceptance of the way of life in the NBA.
Marcus Smart — who provided 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and a pair of blocks off the bench in Game 7 — was asked what it will take to beat Cleveland.
“Perfection,” Smart answered. “There’s no such thing as [perfection], but we’ve got to do our best to stay perfect against those guys. They’re defending champs for a reason.”
Horford, who’s been around a bit longer than most of his teammates, described the Cleveland matchup as “a fun challenge” for the C’s.
“They’ve been playing at a really high level. I think the regular season for them was just kind of like, ‘Let’s get through it.’ And now, they’ve just turned it up to another level,” Horford said. “So it’s going to be a fun challenge for our group.”
Horford said the team’s focus needs to remain on Game 1, and then Game 2, and so on. Thinking of a series win at this point would be premature and unproductive.
“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Horford said. “We still have to look into them and get into that mind-set and give it a go.”
In addition to the low expectations, there’s also the not-so-small matter of the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night, which puts the Celtics in the unique position of being in basketball’s final four while also having the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick. They have nearly a 50 percent chance of landing either the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick.
And when you consider that Stevens has been at the helm for a 28-win turnaround over just three years and now gets to add a top-level talent to his team, there’s reason for some real, real optimism.
But that’s a potential franchise-altering moment for another day. For now, the Celtics are in the final four, standing beside the best the NBA has to offer in the Cavaliers, Warriors and Spurs.
Smart, who’s still just 23 years old and in his third NBA season, showed the wisdom of a seasoned veteran in describing what the Celtics have already accomplished this year and provided some insight into how the Celtics will continue to approach their upcoming series vs. Cleveland.
“We’re a young team, rebuilding, and it’s crazy because not many people were on our side. They counted us out from the beginning of the season. Even when we got the one-seed, they said we were the worst one-seed ever,” Smart said. “It just shows that it’s us against everybody else.”
That mentality is sure to serve them well in the next round, and certainly, they will not make anything easy for Cleveland.
But still, it was the wisened 30-year-old Horford who seemed to have the best grasp of the accomplishments of winning two playoff series as well as the challenge of the upcoming situation.
“I think it means a lot,” Horford said of the Game 7 win. “I know that we’re in a franchise that expects championships, and that’s great, but we’ve got a young group and our guys have really been working hard all year. It just feels good, because there’s a lot of talk. But to be able to put it together, to see guys doing the right things, to see them grow over this past month in the playoffs, it’s been really nice.”
It has indeed been nice, and even if the conference finals doesn’t quite go so smoothly, the Celtics have done enough this spring to inspire confidence that the future should be even better. Given the nature of this league, that’s about as much as anyone can ask for.