I know what everybody’s thinking. We’ve seen this movie before. Young, plucky, overachieving, happy-to-be-here Boston Celtics max out reaching conference finals only to get steamrolled by big bad LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Bless their hearts, it’s adorable that they made it this far.
And while it’s fair to have succumbed to that line of thinking prior to the start of the postseason it’s time to recalibrate the expectations for this team. Sure, you now know after watching their young stars develop faster than imagined what the Celtics can and will become once Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving return from injury next season. But that detracts from who they are in the present moment. These guys are for real. An extremely talented Basketball team who – even without it’s two best players – is perfectly capable of dethroning King James on it’s own.
It’s understandable those who may still be suffering from PTSD after watching last year’s Conference Finals vs the Cavs who steamrolled the Celtics in 5 not so competitive games. But this year’s Celtics team is not the same, and neither is Cleveland. (I know fans in Toronto probably felt the same way.)
Last year the Celtics just didn’t have the talent or the athletes to keep up with the Cavs. This year they do. Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier have evolved from role players into players capable of carrying an offense for stretches by themselves. Ditto Jayson Tatum who of course was still in college.
“All these experiences are times three with this group,” head coach Brad Stevens said after last night’s game. “We’re getting an expedited learning curve. They’re not getting ‘play a little bit as a rookie and the next year play a little bit more.’ It’s like ‘you’re all playing a lot and let’s figure it out on the fly.’ ”
Last season with Isaiah Thomas out for the Celtics, Cleveland probably had the best 3 players on the floor at any given time. This year you could argue 4 of the top 6 players in the series will be wearing Green.
As for matchups The Celtics can throw a lot of bodies (Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Semi Ojeleye, Marcus Smart) at Lebron. Kyrie’s not playing for the Celtics but he’s not playing for Cleveland either so that’s one less headache for Boston. And Tristan Thompson – who has traditionally killed the Celtics on the glass – meet Aron Baynes.
Cleveland on the other hand is going to have a miserable time trying to keep up with the Celtics. Their defense in the regular season (109.5 defensive rating/2nd worst in league) was not much better in the sweep of Toronto (110.1). There is no guard on that roster that can stay in front of Terry Rozier and Cleveland is not going to be able to hide Kyle Korver or Kevin Love on defense. The Celtics will find and exploit those matchups all day.
Of course LeBron is LeBron, destroyer of worlds. He is single-handedly capable of dominating every minute of every game by himself. And if that happens, tip your hat and acknowledge his singular greatness.
But don’t sleep on these Celtics. Not this year. Just getting here IS an accomplishment but the team is capable of more. We all know what they’re going to be in the very near future, but it’s looking like that future may already have arrived.
This column was prepared by John Zannis for CLNS Media & CelticsBlog