Forgive the 80s reference that will likely get totally lost on the under-30 crowd, but this series is starting to remind me of the movie Top Gun.
The Hawks are Iceman. He was the cool, calculating, efficient pilot kept executing textbook flying until the other guy made a mistake. The Hawks have been together for years and have mastered the ball-movement offense that waits for an opening and picks teams apart.
The Celtics are Maverick. As the name implies, the character was unpredictable, reactionary, and incredibly creative. Boston struggles at times when the game slows down, and the team has to match execution with the Hawks. But when things break down and chaos reigns, the Celtics thrive with their creativity and gamesmanship.
MORE ON GAME 4
MORE ON GAME 4
Nobody embodies that characterization better than Marcus Smart. He flies around the court disrupting opponents' rhythm on defense. He takes shots that don't make sense from a scouting report perspective, and sometimes that hurts the team. Sometimes, though, Smart's plays are just so crazy that they work.
Evan Turner is another example. He's the typical jack of all trades, master of none. Those kinds of guys are rare in a league where specialists make bank, but he makes plays that matter. Isaiah Thomas was able to nail a game-sealing three-pointer in overtime because Turner drove into the teeth of the defense and kicked it out to Thomas for an open look.
Thomas himself is a counterintuitive enigma. A lethal Lilliputian Leprechaun cavorting in the land of giants. On the game-tying play to force overtime, he drove the lane and was greeted by two Hawk defenders converging on him. They formed an airborne wall that no right-minded ball handler would consider a good look at the basket. Thomas just calmly found the quarter-inch crack in the foundation and flowed like water through it for a scooping layup. He made that play look easy, but you'd be hard pressed to find a handful of players on the planet that could pull it off.
The Celtics have made a habit out of doing the unexpected. Zigging where others zagged. Reading and reacting and imposing their will. Brad Stevens has bred this mentality and gets credit for cultivating it. Paul Flannery puts it well:
Stevens' genius in coaching this team goes way beyond ATOs and cool sets. What he does best is cultivate an environment in which his players test their limits and let their freak flag fly. He lets them play to their strengths and doesn't harp on their weaknesses.
Analysts will go back and look at the tape and make note that the Hawks missed many good looks. The law of averages and regression to the mean indicate that a good shooting team like Atlanta will even out and shoot better, and they probably will. But saying that the Hawks "just missed shots" is a disservice to the overall impact that the Celtics' helter-skelter defensive pressure put on them. Sometimes you can disrupt a player's rhythm so much that even when he gets an open look, it feels rushed or tight. Great shooters power through that, but good shooters can fall into a slump when conditions aren't ideal.
Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." The Hawks will execute you to your execution if you let them. But Boston's best counterpunch is to create havoc and trust their instincts to make plays. It isn't pretty, it isn't efficient, and there's a real possibility that it isn't sustainable. But it is an edge, and these two teams are close enough that any edge can be critically important.
If the Celtics can continue to create chaos, they've got a shot to knock off this Hawks team and win Brad Stevens his first playoff series.
Don't screw around with me Maverick. You're a heck of an instinctive pilot. Maybe too good. I'd like to bust your butt but I can't. I got another problem here. I gotta send somebody from this squadron to Miramar. I gotta do something here, I still can't believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot! I'm gonna send you up against the best. You two characters are going to Top Gun.