Keith Smith: This R&R isn’t about a specific part of the game, because nothing remarkable happened to stand out. Unless you want to go deep on zone defense!
But that is what makes this Celtics season so special and improbable. Nothing is remarkable or stands out, but it’s all been unbelievable.
On opening night, Gordon Hayward went down. The team could have taken a “let’s re-adjust and focus on development and get after it in 2018-19” approach. Instead, they won 16 straight games.
Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis went down in short order. Again the team could have said “OK. We fought hard, but this is just too much to overcome now.” Instead, they go 4-0 on a West Coast trip.
It feels like 50-60 times in games this year, the Celtics could have said, “we’re down big, so let’s save it for the next one.” Instead they rally like no team I’ve ever covered before.
Next man up. Everyone plays to the best of their ability. They all play together for each other. Brad Stevens. Danny Ainge. A special mix of kids and vets who get after it every single game. This particular Boston Celtics team has won me over like none before them. They are a joy to watch and cover. Now, let’s keep that going for a few more months!
Simon Pollock: I don’t really know where to go with this result or what to say about who did what. But here’s a remarkable stat from the month of March:
Without combinations of Horford, Smart, Theis, Irving, and Brown, the Boston Celtics are 4-2 against teams in the Western Conference playoff race.
Tonight, without four players that started on opening night, the NBA’s best defense beat the NBA’s second-best defense on a buzzer beater. Neither team broke 100.
Teams don’t win games like the one tonight because of some secret talent analysts have slept on. It’s not because of circumstances producing the perfect energy guy in a 10-day contract.
This is team culture at work, the ability to not be discouraged after Rudy Gobert contested, discouraged, or flat out rejected so many drives at the rim or when Donovan Mitchell was putting on a show.
The 2017-2018 Celtics are gritty as hell.
And now, this:
Bill Sy: We can heap praise on these Celtics all day, but it’s not all just grit and guts and teamwork. There were deliberate strategies at play, including the zone defense in the fourth quarter and that final ATO from Brad Stevens.
After giving up 32 points in the third quarter (after giving up 39 in the entire first half), the Celtics clamped down again in the final frame and allowed just 23 points in the 4th. It was in large part due to Boston’s use of a 2-3 zone that stymied ball handlers from penetrating into the paint and force them to perimeter shots. Here’s Stevens:
Brad Stevens says he went to the 2-3 zone because “it allowed us to direct the pick-and-roll the way we wanted to direct it.”— Boston Celtics (@celtics) March 29, 2018
Their zone isn’t much different than their man-to-man philosophy: bend on pick-and-rolls, but don’t break and allow easy looks at the rim. The biggest difference is that in a zone, you’ve always got the five-man in the paint protecting the rim which leaves you susceptible to open perimeter shots. The Celtics gambled and the Jazz missed all five shots from behind the arc in the 4th quarter.
Down the stretch, Boston dared Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio to shoot 15-footers and they obliged. When they kicked it out to shooters, they hesitated and got into more trouble. It was a necessary evil with their switchiest bigs Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and Daniel Theis on the mend.
On the offensive end, how about that ATO from Stevens? First, the key is Semi Ojeleye at the five. I’m not sure if Quin Snyder had a chance to sub Rudy Gobert out when he saw neither Greg Monroe or Aron Baynes on the floor for the final shot. I mean, why would he? It’s a tie game and there’s no way you best defensive player, right? Well, maybe he should have because Ojeleye was the perfect decoy for the potential DPoY to chase.
When Shane Larkin triggers the play at mid-court, Ojeleye dives into the paint but quickly retreats to the three-point line. Instinctively, Gobert stays in the paint to protect the rim against Larkin’s drive. Joe Ingles does a great job cutting off Larkin, but now, three players are in effect covering the ball handler. Larkin makes a perfect kick out pass to Ojeleye, Ojeleye skips it to an even more open Jaylen Brown, and Brown nails the game winner.
If Kyrie Irving was healthy, maybe the Celtics go straight iso in the final seconds. With Al Horford not nursing an ankle, maybe Boston doesn’t elect to go zone and Horford switches every screen like he’s down all season. In a season of maybes, the sure thing is that this team plays with heart and executes with precision.
Bobby Manning: I think we’re getting back to the time when Brad Stevens ATOs felt inevitably successful. The last play tonight was pure wizardry, the way the rapid movement toward the baseline and eventually on the left wing caught up Rudy Gobert just enough in-between, while Ricky Rubio got stuck underneath against the initial penetration, that Jaylen Brown had miles of space to slam the game to a conclusion with a three.
The play developed rapidly, Semi Ojeleye timed his pass perfectly with an initial hesitation that froze the defense and Brown finished the deal on a night where he returned to full pre-injury form. Shane Larkin and Ojeleye have entered, exited the rotation throughout the year but both looked perfectly poised through a complex play Stevens threw their way and it continues to be a defining feature of his teams, everybody’s ready for their moment to fill in. Tonight, it grabbed Boston another improbable win.