“Sometimes, we like doing it the hard way,” Jaylen Brown told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the Boston Celtics hard fought Game 7 victory against the Miami Heat.
“I hate that about us,” he added with a wry grin, capturing the feelings of a significant portion of the fan base.
The Celtics have demonstrated an ability to dominate all levels of competition throughout the year, leveraging the league’s best defense and a cadre of versatile offensive weapons to pummel their opponents into submission more often than not. But for all of Boston’s effectiveness in the aggregate, the team has succumbed to some headscratchingly bad play with relative consistency.
Usually it’s just a small stretch — sometimes, it’s a terrible quarter. Less frequently, it’s a full game gone south (looking at you, Game 3 against Miami). The Celtics’ swoons are typically marked by turnovers, cold shooting, stagnant offensive sets, and complaining to the referees instead of locking in defensively.
Suddenly a sixteen-point lead is down to just eight or a push to overcome an early-game deficit that just noses Boston ahead is thwarted by two easy buckets off live ball turnovers. In the case of Game 7 against the Heat, a nine-point lead with just two minutes and twenty seconds left is cut to two with Jimmy Butler hoisting a three to try to take the lead with 16 seconds to go.
It’s easy enough to dismiss the Celtics’ propensity for mini collapses given their results to-date. They’re headed to the NBA Finals after all. That’s an incredible feat. They’re not in for another Eastern Conference wrestling match though. Their opponent, the Golden State Warriors, have a major experience advantage and precisely the tools needed to pick at one of the Celtics’ vulnerabilities.
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole are all capable of torching mistakes to score flurries of points. It’s not hyperbole to say that the same process that may have yielded an 8-0 run for the Heat or Milwaukee Bucks will result in a 15-0 run for the Warriors.
Turning the ball over and giving up easy looks against Milwaukee or Miami is playing with fire. Doing so against Golden State is like adding a giant pile of kindling into the equation, particularly if even just one of Curry or Thompson is hot.
None of this dooms Boston. No team plays perfectly all the time, and the Celtics have found a way to work through their struggles enough to win three playoff series already. They’re really, really good, and the Warriors are prone to occasional stretches of sloppiness in their own right.
Boston probably doesn’t have the offensive punch to punish Golden State for its mistakes in quite equal measure, but they do have a defense that is built to slow the Warriors more effectively than any they’ve encountered this postseason, and possibly ever. The Celtics will need to lean on that defense should they start “doing things the hard way” at any point.
It’s what’s made them so successful thus far, and it’s part of what makes Boston such an endearing team. There is beauty in having enough resilience to overcome your own shortcomings and win ugly. The “hard way” against the Warriors will be harder than any opponent the Celtics have played yet, but the NBA Finals aren’t meant to be easy.
Buckle up and enjoy the ride.