Boston has been, to this point, unstoppable when its played under the banners at TD Garden this postseason, going a flawless 11-0 combined over the first three rounds compared to just 1-6 on the road. The discrepancy in performance is hard to explain, but it’s also somewhat expected.
With an average age of 24.5 the Celtics are among the youngest teams in the NBA, and it’s natural for a squad lacking in experience to play better in front of their home crowd. Sure, guys like Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Marcus Smart have plenty of postseason experience between them. But other key cogs like Jayson Tatum (first), Jaylen Brown (second), Terry Rozier (third) and Semi Ojeleye (first) are essentially brand new to the playoffs. Even Marcus Morris, a six-year veteran, is only making his second-career postseason appearance.
That’s why it’s been so important for this Celtics team to have home court advantage. Making it this deep wasn’t supposed to happen in the first place, but now that Boston has just one game separating it and an improbable trip to the NBA Finals, it’s going to need all the help it can get to get past a locked-in James, who is vying for his eighth-straight trip to the championship round.
Consider this series alone. Through six games the Celtics have experienced a near 34-point swing between the TD Garden and Quicken Loans Arena, with plus-minuses of +17 at home and -16.3 on the road. While the offense has worsened (107.7 offensive rating at home, 100.2 away), it’s been the defense that’s struggled the most with the change in scenery. Boston currently has a stellar 91.3 defensive rating at home compared to an atrocious 114.8 on the road, numbers that would rank first and last, respectively, by wide margins if extrapolated over the regular season.
Brad Stevens has emphasized connectivity on both ends of the floor during both the regular season and the playoffs. But it has been easy to see that some of the connectivity hasn’t been as apparent on the road in this series.
“Five guys playing as one,” Stevens said the day after the Cavs’s drubbing of his team in Game 3. “You can see it. You can probably stat it somehow, but you can feel it. You can see it. You know what’s happening right in front of you. We did not do that last night.”
Al Horford observed some of the same things, noting that the team was “a little out of sync.”
But what’s the reasoning behind it? This isn’t just something that the team can simply chock up to a one-game sample given that Boston has been consistently worse when it’s not at TD Garden.
Perhaps it’s a lack of or inability to focus. The Celtics switch-heavy defense is predicated on near-flawless communication between teammates and it’s possible some of the younger guys lose sight of that a little bit when playing in a more hostile environment.
Luckily, the Celtics don’t have to worry too much about what plagues them on the road in the here and now. Boston will be in front of its faithful tonight, a crowd they have fed off throughout this wild ride its currently on.
“I truly believe it’s our fans,” Horford said following Game 5. “I feel like our guys feed off of them and it really just drives us as a group. You get on the road and you’re just out there against everybody else. Here, I just think that our guys just feel comfortable and good.”
As cliché as it seems, maybe it really is the crowd that helps get these young guys going. They’re going to need that if they hope to win Game 7 and advance to the Finals. It’s a one-game series now; they can worry about the road later.