The good vibes coming out of Boston’s sweep of Indiana is a renewed trust in the team dynamic. What had plagued the Celtics during the regular season--locker room sniping, DMing through the media, adjusting to roles--was replaced with a dedication to the edia that they’re at their best when minutes, touches, and shot totals don’t matter. The individual epiphanies of Kyrie as playoff closer, Hayward regaining his form, and Brown and Tatum meeting expectations were overshadowed by how all those story lines wove together to become greater than the sum of its parts.
This was always going to be Boston’s best foot forward. In a way, finding playing time for a roster this deep stunted the development of some individual accolades. Maybe Tatum doesn’t suffer through a sophomore slump had he been given a healthier diet of shots. Maybe Hayward breaks through quicker had he remained a starter. Maybe Irving isn’t as much of a malcontent had he been given more to do. That’s the balance that Brad Stevens has had to find throughout the season: is 75% of everybody’s potential better than getting 100% from the stars and turning the back end of the rotation into role players?
To some extent, that’s what Milwaukee has done. Under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, Antetokounmpo has emerged as the prohibitive MVP surrounded by complimentary pieces. Think LeBron in Cleveland before he left for Miami. In a quirky, modern NBA system that turns every game into a three-point shooting contest (the Bucks are second in 3FGA’s and first in opponent’s 3FGA’s), everything revolves around Giannis. On offense, he’s a seven-foot Edward Scissorhands, pirouetting into the paint, cutting up defenses, and finding shooters. On defense, he’s a praying mantis, protecting the rim and biting the heads off of would be scorers. He’s Harden on one end and Gobert on the other.
Maybe it's unfair to label the Bucks as Giannis “and everybody else.” Milwaukee may not have another superstar on the roster, but they’re a great team and most likely going to lock in this roster for the foreseeable future. Eric Bledsoe had the best season of his career and it's earned him a four-year, $70M contract extension. Kris Middleton will be a free agent this summer, but the Bucks will surely re-sign the first-time All-Star this summer. During the season, they depleted some of their assets to bring in veterans George Hill and Nikola Mirotic for this post season run. When spring arrives in the NBA, this is what contenders do. They know who they are and who they will be in their championship window.
The Celtics, on the other hand, are in a sort of limbo with their identity finally coming into form. As well as they’ve played over the last month winning ten out of their last twelve games, there are questions that still cloud this version of the roster. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that before the trade deadline, the Los Angeles Clippers contacted Danny Ainge about the availability of Kyrie Irving, “but a quick no was given.” Even with speculation that Irving could leave for New York with Kevin Durant, Boston seems confident that they’ll be able to re-sign him. There’s also the looming future of Anthony Davis in New Orleans. New Executive VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin seems hellbent on keeping AD, but Ainge hasn’t picked up the phone...yet. With a team with as bring a future as the Celtics, these playoffs have the air of a last hurrah of sorts, at least for this current roster.
There’s a certain Endgame quality to this second round series. Giannis didn’t exactly snap his fingers and erase half the league, but the Celtics are the best representation of a collective trying to defeat a singular force. Every conference semi-finalist has been powered by a superstar’s performance. Kevin Durant dropped 50 last night in the Warriors’ close out game in Los Angeles last night. Damian Lillard did the same against the Thunder. Nikola Jokic has been a triple-double machine in Denver. Now, Boston faces the presumptive MVP in a do-or-die match up where the only way to beat him is to truly “Rise Together.” The Celtics haven’t been buoyed by one player. Different guys have carried the team in different games, different quarters, and different moments. And with the future uncertain, this could be the last time we see them together like this.