BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics are poised to tip-off their first Eastern Conference finals at the Garden since 2012… and they don’t stand a chance.
Marcus Smart put it impeccably following his team’s hard-fought 115-105 Game 7 win over the Wizards Monday, when asked how well Boston will have to play to have a prayer against Cleveland.
“We gotta do our best to stay perfect.”
Perfect. How perfect? Considering it’s a series and not a March Madness style one-off, Smart’s club has to be better than the Americans were in 1980 when they upset the Soviets in Lake Placid.
The Celts are the East’s top seed in title, but the defending-champion Cavaliers hold that distinction in reputation. The C’s seemingly needed a Rajon Rondo injury to recover from an 0-2 deficit against the Bulls in the opening round, then allowed a Wizards team equal in talent to push them to the brink of elimination in the conference semis.
But, they survived. It’s a testament to who and what these Celtics are. Fighters ‘til the end, which is why the upcoming best-of-seven with the almost effortlessly 8-0 Cavs just may wind up being a series. Of course, most would define “series” as “Boy, it’d be a miracle if the C’s can win two games!”
It’s a strange thing to celebrate, obviously. Imagine getting excited about the Patriots merely reaching the AFC Championship Game. That’s horrifying, but also where perspective comes into play. The Pats are annually Super Bowl contenders, if not favorites, and the Celts are still climbing the rungs of their expedited rebuild.
The good news: They can see the top of the ladder. They’re about to get a close, perhaps uncomfortable look at a team with the best player of his generation (who, by the way, is playing as well as ever), two perennial All-Stars, and a supporting cast that’s reached two straight NBA finals. The Cavs handled the Pacers and embarrassed the often Kyle Lowry-less Raptors, thanks to unselfish basketball and an element of give-a-bleep on defense that wasn’t there during the regular season.
And provided those Cavaliers ultimately square off with the Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy for the third year in a row, they won’t even necessarily be favored, since all Golden State did after blowing a 3-2 finals lead last year was add one of the five best players in the world in Kevin Durant.
Celtics fans are simply enjoying the ride right now. The players and staff believe anything is possible, harkening to the screams of Kevin Garnett, and they should. Deep down, though, they know they’re still a star or two away from the top of the mountain.
As the franchise waits to learn the fate of the lottery balls tonight in New York and whether it will possess its first ever No. 1 selection, the future’s bright. But the men of the present have already done their jobs.
The debates are over. No matter what happens after Game 1 with Cleveland tips on the parquet Wednesday night, Boston’s 2016-17 season is a success.
Back in the summer, most identified the Green as a 50-plus win team that should finish with home-court advantage in the playoffs and finally escape the first-round after consecutive early exits. That was the absolute baseline expectation, otherwise fans and media alike would be jumping to call the campaign a failure.
When the C’s outworked the Cavs in the regular season to the point of finishing as the top-seed, fair or unfair, many moved the goalposts. Home-court in round two against any club other than Cleveland required Boston take two steps forward to the conference finals. Short of that, again, critics would rush to deem the season an underachievement or, at best, a disappointment after taking 2-0 and 3-2 series leads, along with the ball and a five-point lead with less than 90 seconds to play in Game 6.
Brad Stevens’ playoff record has vaulted from 2-10 just a few weeks ago to 10-13. With each win, his group has grown closer and more confident – at times, unnecessarily cocky – and more laser-focused on proving its doubters wrong.
The Celtics have achieved that this postseason. Stevens can win a playoff series – multiple even – and make countless adjustments along the way. Isaiah Thomas can be the best player and leading-scorer on a team good enough to reach the league’s final four, and he can do so under the most imaginable of circumstances. Al Horford is undeniably worth his max contract. Avery Bradley is one of the better two-way players across the Association. Jaylen Brown, at 20, is showcasing why he may one day be considered the premier player from his draft class. Others like Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier have displayed their value through versatility or inconsistent explosions on either side of the ball.
And, of course, the C’s have shown they’re not just a bunch of ragtag misfits who try harder than their opponents during the regular season. They do in fact have another level.
It just isn’t the Cavaliers’ level.
At this point, as Stevens and his players “just focus on tomorrow,” the Boston Celtics are playing with house money. There’s no pressure. Any measure of success against LeBron James and the Cavs is gravy – the icing on the cake to a better than anticipated season and a future that may look even more promising by the end of Tuesday night.