In theory, the Boston Celtics have the red carpet laid out for them.
The #1 overall seeded Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated in the first round, the Cleveland Cavaliers were “upset” by the New York Knicks, and Joel Embiid is projected to be a shell of himself in their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
But Boston should learn a lesson from Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies.
At the end of December, in an interview with ESPN’s Malika Andrews, Morant stated that the Celtics are the only team he had his eyes on. Andrews quickly asked about the Western Conference, to which Morant now infamously replied:
“I’m fine in the West.”
Fast forward a few months, and the Grizzlies draw the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. Dillon Brooks decides to trash-talk LeBron James, calling him old and declaring, “I poke bears.” Brooks said that he doesn’t respect opponents until they drop 40 on him.
Well, in Game 6 against the Lakers, with their season on the line, the Grizzlies lost.
It turns out Morant wasn’t fine in the West. And Brooks, who left the arena before the media got the chance to speak with him after the elimination game, poked the wrong bear.
Just as the Grizzlies were not fine in the West, the Celtics are not fine in the East.
Sure, their pathway to victory has seemingly been made easier. Not having to go through Giannis Antetokounmpo is a huge advantage, and the fact that Embiid isn’t fully healthy should also give them a bit more leeway. But the Celtics cannot take those advantages and count on them.
Boston just had trouble containing the Atlanta Hawks’ offense — a unit that was fourth in the NBA post-All-Star break. Well, Philadelphia’s offense was third in that time span, clocking in at a 120.1 offensive rating.
Embiid may be hurt, but the team around him has stepped up. Tyrese Maxey had a solid series against the Brooklyn Nets, as did Tobias Harris. James Harden’s two-point shooting dropped, but he, Maxey, and Harris were all on fire from behind the three-point line.
Paul Reed even improved his play with Embiid’s injury issues. After dealing with Clint Capela for an entire series, the Celtics are now set to run into Reed, who averaged 4.3 offensive rebounds per game against Brooklyn.
Even looking past the 76ers, two valiant teams lay in wait for the Celtics in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup. While most assumed the conference was on a crash course for Celtics-Bucks, the Miami Heat and Knicks pose real threats.
Regarding offensive rebounding, Mitchell Robinson is coming off of a series where he outplayed Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. He averaged 5.8 offensive boards per game against Cleveland, including an 11-offensive-rebound performance to close out the Cavaliers in Game 5.
Equally as concerning is Josh Hart, who also pulled down 2.4 offensive rebounds per game. Add in Jalen Brunson’s clutch factor, Immanuel Quickley’s pesky defense, and the fact that New York beat the Cavaliers in five without much help from a struggling Julius Randle, and the Knicks are real.
As for Miami, there are only two words to say: Jimmy Butler.
The Heat may not be as good as they were just one season ago, but Butler has been the best player in the postseason this year. He’s incensed.
And if that weren’t enough, the Heat — who ranked 27th (34.4%) in three-point percentage during the regular season — shot 45.0% from deep in the first round. Duncan Robinson re-found his shot, Caleb Martin turned up the heat, Kevin Love turned back the clock, and even Butler has been nailing his threes.
For the past few seasons, the Celtics have made a habit out of playing down to their competition. A mid-March loss to the Houston Rockets. A 28-point blown lead against the Nets. Failing to close out the Hawks at home in the first round. It’s become a trend.
They may not employ the same cockiness as the Grizzlies, but their lackadaisical attitude has never been more apparent. The last five minutes of Game 6 against Atlanta portrayed the Celtics team favorited to win the title, but that was only five minutes of a 48-minute contest. For the other 43, they just couldn’t pull away.
To their credit, the Celtics have avoided Memphis’ hubris in favor of a level-headed approach. In fact, they’ve been so pragmatic all season that fans have grown frustrated. Even after a brutal loss, Boston will shake it off and simply move on to the next game. They take accountability but refuse to get too high or too low.
“We’ve been in situations like this before. It’s unfortunate,” Jaylen Brown said after Boston’s disastrous Game 5 loss. “You can look around and point fingers, or you can take ownership of the situation. You got two chances to win one. So, come out and get ready for the next game.”
Rather than put their heads down, the Celtics remained steadfast, instead choosing to prepare for Game 6. And while they didn’t dominate from the jump, they got the job done when it mattered.
But as the postseason roars on, Boston needs to avoid the same lapses they had against the Hawks. MVP Embiid, Playoff Jimmy, and a hard-nosed Knicks team won’t let them get away with the same blunders.
So, while the Bucks’ elimination and Embiid’s injury may leave the Celtics with better odds than they would have had before, they cannot afford to act like it.
The Celtics are not fine in the East.
If they want to return to The Finals, they need to lock in, bring the energy, and avoid playing down to their competition. A failure to do so could leave them making the same walk of shame back to the hotel a la Dillon Brooks.
But if they play up to par, the Larry O’Brien trophy could be lying in wait.