For a second, put on hold your excitement over winning the #1 pick in the draft lottery, the distant mirage of filling cap space with a max player, this ridiculous debate over whether the Celtics are better without Isaiah Thomas, and the mental gymnastics of all the moves and options Danny Ainge could make this summer. That’s all fine and dandy and in due time, conversations worth having, but right now, this is a special moment. It may not seem like that with the Boston Celtics on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs, but against LeBron James and arguably the best Cavaliers team assembled around him, we are witnessing the re-birth of Celtic Pride. Capital C, capital P.
Almost immediately after Avery Bradley’s three trickled in at the buzzer of Game 3, the doubters and boo birds filled the airwaves. Boston had caught LeBron on a historically bad off night, they said. After going up twenty-one points, Ty Lue wanted to experiment with different lineups, they suggested. Marcus Smart had an un-Marcus Smart game, they qualified. Leprechauns had replaced Thomas in the lineup, they joked.
But it’s not luck.
Game 4 had all the trappings for a Cleveland blowout. The Golden State Warriors completed their sweep out west and became the first team in the modern era to go 12-0 in their conference en route to The Finals. The Cavs were salty after not completing the same feat heading into their fated rematch. The narrative was that LeBron would have his revenge game against the Celtics and and bury them. Vegas had Boston as a 15-point dog and +1500 on the money line. The national media was already writing the Celtics’ obituaries even with Game 5 at TD Garden. Boston could have taken their one win—a moral victory really—and nobody would blame them for accepting their participation trophy on Thursday and starting their summer.
Hear that? That’s Charles Barkley, who doesn’t mince words or use hyperbole and has consistently criticized the Celtics, mentioning Celtic Pride.
Instead, the Celtics fought back. At the 5:30 mark of the 2nd quarter, they had built a 16-point lead by playing team basketball. Fourteen out of Boston’s first eighteen buckets were assisted. Five players had two or more made shots and the team as a whole committed only one turnover. Defensively, they forced miscue after Cleveland miscue and limited the Cavs’ ability to get into the paint. The momentum they had generated from Game 3 carried over in the first half of Game 4. For four quarters that bridged between both road games, the young Celtics were finally playing Celtics basketball.
Of the nine Celtics that saw the Quicken Loans Arena floor last night, seven of them are 27-years-old or younger. Jaylen Brown is only 20. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier just turned 23. That speaks volumes to the character that Danny Ainge and the front office look for in their players and yet again validates Brad Stevens as one of the league’s best young coaches. And it’s not just the X’s and O’s.
His leadership and ability to get these young men to play at such a high level against the NBA’s best is remarkable. It’s one thing for his own players to throw him praise, but when one of the game’s best players takes notice of how hard and how well prepared the Celtics are, it matters. After the game, when asked about how different the Celtics’ offense is without Isaiah Thomas and how Boston has adjusted, James said, “they run different things just because of IT being a huge piece of the puzzle for them offensively. So, they had to kind of reshape and that's the beauty of having Brad Stevens as your coach: you're able to reshape what you do offensively and still be in a good rhythm.” That’s not the first time LeBron has complimented Stevens. After sweeping them two years ago, James was more profuse with his praise:
"I highly respect their coaching staff and especially their head coach," James said. "A very well-coached team, he put those guys out there every night and put them in position to win the game and I think Brad Stevens is a very good young coach in our league."
For the last four years, Stevens has stressed the process of getting better after every practice and every game. It’s hard work and with hard work comes pride. Sometimes as fans, we talk about Celtic Pride as this ethereal thing, as if there’s pixie dust sprinkled over the parquet. We make heroes out of men and legends like Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, and Paul Pierce become characters of folklore. We forget that there was a beginning. Before every banner, there’s a season and most likely, several years building up to that one special June.