“One game at a time,” Jayson Tatum told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after Boston dominated Brooklyn in Game 3 and she dared utter the idea of a “sweep.” “This is a big win, but you gotta win four. They’re not going to give up. They got two of the best players and we know that, so get some rest, watch some film, and be ready for the next game.”
Even with a commanding 3-0 lead heading into tonight’s Game 4 tip-off in Brooklyn, it’s easy to get lost in the narratives and the storylines of what could be a sweep of the Nets.
The Celtics could still the taste of last year’s playoffs in their mouths. A gentleman’s sweep to Brooklyn sent Boston packing early after competing in three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. It was a miserable season capped off with an early exit.
Further back, there’s Kevin Durant’s free agency flirtation with Boston in 2016 before he chose Golden State instead and few have forgotten Kyrie Irving’s pledge to return to the Celtics and subsequent betrayal the following summer.
There’s also the idea of what a possible sweep represents. After the Nets started the playoffs as an early favorite to make it to The Finals, the Celtics have demoralized and deconstructed them after all other East contenders ducked Brooklyn in the final day of the regular season. They won’t raise a banner at TD Garden if they dispatch of the Nets in the first round, but it’s certainly a testament to how this team believes in themselves and are willing to take on all-comers.
Boston — as they have all season — has approached the start of the postseason like they have every day since the start of training camp. It’s been a long, grueling process and while it’s born fruit over the last four months, it’s taken a team-wide faith in that process to push them forward.
But the job isn’t over yet.
More than his most recent stint with KD, Kyrie, and Steve Nash last year, head coach Ime Udoka’s long history in the league and experience as a player and a coach have been invaluable in Boston’s turnaround since the turn of the year. That isn’t a knock on Brad Stevens. By all accounts, the Celtics President of Basketball Operations had a fine basketball mind, but there’s a difference between knowing and experiencing. For someone who hasn’t been there, losing might seem like a failure in the X’s and O’s of the game. But for someone who has been through winning and losing on the floor and on the sidelines, the triumph and pain is personal.
“I’m the guy that will never count something being done until it’s done,” Udoka said after practice on Sunday. “Ray Allen hit a shot to take away a championship ring my first year as a coach (in San Antonio), and so that’s always in my mind...one thing can happen to flip a series, and you don’t want to be on the wrong end of that.”
Udoka also spent three seasons with the Spurs as a role player, just missing the championship years. He knows these moments and opportunities can be fleeting, but even in his first year with the Celtics, he has to know that he’s building something substantial and long lasting in Boston. And to his credit, he’s credited and empowered the players for their play.
“I like to coach on the fly at times and I’ll call some things out that I see from the broad view of the court, seeing where guys are spaced,” Udoka said. “But at the same time, Marcus, Jayson, and Jaylen as well as our bigs have done a great job of understanding where they are on the court with certain personnel and I think the communication behind them has been great.”
With a series-clinching opportunity in Game 4, it’s obviously been great and you’ll see a lot of pundits this morning talking about how the Nets have already given up and how Ben Simmons wants to piece of the blame pie anymore. But this is still just about one game.
“Our message is ‘enjoy what you’re doing, but do it better. When it’s all done, we’ll enjoy it for a second and move on to the next one. That’s our mentality. One game at a time. One quarter at a time. One play at a time. Don’t look at the big picture.”