For all of the shrewd planning and masterful execution crafted by Danny Ainge’s front office over the past four years, the destiny of the Celtics will come down to one evening of sheer physical will and one of pure luck.
Monday night at 8 pm, the Celtics tip off against the Washington Wizards in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the prize of which is a chance to face a LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers and a continued glimmer of hope at an NBA Championship. Just 24 hours later, the NBA lottery results will be announced in New York, as Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck will grace the stage — 2008 ring resting on the podium — hoping to see his team’s logo emerge from the final envelope.
This franchise has never won a higher pick than its seed in the history of the lottery. Although, it did win the third pick from the third lottery seed last year and the third pick from the second seed in 1997. Tuesday night, they enter with the highest chance at the top pick, courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets.
There has always been something about the particular shade of Celtic green from which randomness has shied away. The irony of seemingly deliberate poor luck for a team whose logo is a three leaf clover festers in the minds of its forebearers.
The idiom “water seeks its level” has been tossed around the past few weeks after Brad Stevens declared his faith in the Celtics eventual shooting improvement. While that ended up being somewhat prescient, there was a sense of control. The NBA Draft lottery, despite even the most retrospectively omniscient conspiracy theories, is quite simply randomness at its finest.
So the Celtics must first conquer what they can control. This series goes beyond a chance to maybe win a couple games against the Cavs. It’s more than being in position to take advantage in the next round if an injury occurs. This is about proving this team is worth building around. Not just internally, but around the league.
This is a self-labeled finesse team going against a dominant Wizards starting lineup with size, power and athleticism at every position. Even when it looked like they caught a break with match up headache Markieff Morris spraining his ankle in Game 1, he miraculously has fought through the pain to remain effective.
A team that initially set forth an identity of high pace has found success in slowing it down, meticulously crafting half-court possessions to find open shots. Their pace in their seven playoff wins this year has been 92.3, compared to 94.7 in their five losses. When removing the bogged down Game 6 which they let slip away, that pace in losses balloons to 95.8. They want to limit Washington’s transition chances and whittle them away with the sheer volume of three-point attempts.
The new identity this year became less about outracing the opponent into a tailspin and more about using precision to slowly shred the opponent. They have become more unpredictable as their versatility has grown, with Al Horford’s ability to do literally anything unlocking this next phase.
This leaves the rest of the NBA, particularly Gordon Hayward, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and probably a few other stars under the radar, watching Monday night to see if this team is truly a great scorer away from making the leap.
The Stevens administration has been determined in exhibiting it has the systems in place to be great. But this is the first time it’s come close to proving it works. Losing a Game 7 at first would have a bittersweet quality. A reassurance that even though you fell short, you were an inch from achieving your goal. Yet over time, the quality of the series fades away, as the only memory becomes who won and who lost.
NBA players have a tendency to remember who won and lost. When you ask a player about their goals, no matter how process-oriented and studious they may be, the majority of answers include the words points and wins. Game 7 is the ultimate audition. No matter what may happen against the Cavs, the Celtics would prove that they could get there and that is often enough to convince someone to jump on board. Even a sweep would provide the opportunity for the Celtics to show free agents how they could win that series with them on the floor. The lottery results determine how much bigger this ship can get.
Winning the top pick means a lot this year. Markelle Fultz started as a prime prospect and is entering draft season as a nearly flawless player. His comparisons to players like James Harden and John Wall have not a trace of hyperbole within them. The prospects below him offer tantalizing possibility, but every GM in the league can envision drafting Fultz with more confidence than Jack Donaghy in front of a hotel lobby mirror. If it ends up in Boston, the top pick will have a historically intense bidding war.
The Celtics will be able to acquire any of their targets. Jimmy Butler? Sure. Paul George? Why not. Blake Griffin? Well...he’s opting out. Kevin Durant? Woah, keep it together.
Teams with unsettled stars will see drafting Fultz as the chance to hit the reset button with confidence and bravado. The Celtics have set out to create a two-phase rebuild, using cap space and trades to field a title contender for the next five years, while building up an unprecedented roster of elite prospects to take over after that. Even if they were to get the fourth pick — the worst possible outcome in the lottery from their top position — they would still have enough talent under 24 on the roster from which to build a good playoff team.
But that’s not enough and has never been enough for this franchise. Grousbeck loves to shout that from the rafters and it’s the exact reason why he is the only owner representing his franchise at the lottery. They know that they can maximize the opportunities drafting Fultz presents better than anyone. Build with him or trade him, the result will be enough for Boston to truly contend for the title for a long time.
They have the chance to pull off a dynasty reminiscent of the San Antonio Spurs. But they need to win Monday and get lucky Tuesday for their results to keep up with their goals. Fate is on the line, which is as exciting as it is intimidating.
“I don’t believe in pressure,” Thomas said Sunday. “I worked too hard to be scared of any type of pressure.”
Tuesday night’s lottery may be left to the Basketball Gods, but Monday’s Game 7 is up to the King in the Fourth. Sounds like the odds are in their favor.