Boston’s depth chart is highlighted with talented veterans and bright young stars. For most of the year, the chemistry has been an issue, but the playoffs have finally brought out the best in them.
At the start of the playoffs, if you had said that Kyrie Irving and Al Horford would combine to make only 25% of their 32 combine field goal attempts on the road, you might think that that would be an automatic loss. Few teams can weather such bad shooting from its stars.
But these are new Celtics, the Celtics that, after a rocky regular season, hit the reset button at the start of the post season and have delivered on some of their pre-season hype. After sweeping the Indiana Pacers with a 110-106 win in Game 4 Sunday afternoon, Jayson Tatum said, “we’re clicking at the right time. We look like the team that everybody thought we were going to be. It took some ups and downs for us to get here, but I like the way we’re looking.”
For the first time all year, the team addressed the elephant(s) in the room: too many good players. It wasn’t a point lost on head coach Brad Stevens. “We’ve talked about our depth as a positive. We knew at the beginning of the year that it was going to be a challenge. We didn’t always talk about it that way, but it was pretty clear from Day 1 that it was going to be a challenge,” Stevens said in his post-game presser.
“But if it all comes together, it can be a positive. We’re still hopefully trending upward. We want to be playing better each time we take the court.”
Game 4 was the most balanced box score with seven players scoring in double figures. Early in the series, there seemed to be fits and starts with chemistry and players acclimating with their roles. Jaylen Brown had just been re-inserted to the starting lineup to replace the ailing Marcus Smart. It had been two years since Kyrie Irving had been in the playoffs. Gordon Hayward was trying to build on his strong finish in the regular season. To some extent, these were all individual issues hindering the team’s progress.
But by the time the team arrived in Indiana, they were more focused on each other and playing with a “the sum is greater than its parts” mindset.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays and make plays for others. The best part at the end of the game was that they were locked into Kyrie, they ran and doubled him, they doubled him off picks, they were very focused on him, and he just kept getting rid of it to the next guy and the next guy had to make the right read and play,” Stevens said about his team’s ball movement and growing trust amongst his players. “The ball whipped around the way it’s supposed to. It’s really encouraging. I think we’re a hard team to double if we’re really moving it like that.”
Before Game 3, Indiana head coach Nate McMillan talked about trapping Irving and getting the ball out of his hands. Kyrie had just dropped 37 points on the Pacers in Game 2. Jaylen Brown capitalized on Indiana overloading on Irving with a team-high 23 points on 8-for-9 shooting and Jayson Tatum and Al Horford chipped in 18 and 16 respectively.
On Sunday afternoon, the flood gates opened. NBA basketball, particularly NBA playoff basketball, is all about figuring out the pressure points you can force on your opponent and pushing hard. Against most teams, Irving is that advantage that Boston can rely on.
“Obviously, I know how great I am with the ball, but we’re even more special as a team when I’m being aggressive and I’m getting off the ball and they’re make great decisions as well,” Irving said. “As you can see, it’s not really about the amount of shots, but just the quality of shots we’re taking.”
The trio of Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Morris combined for 49 points on 18-for-26 shooting. With just over five minutes to go and Boston nursing a one-point lead, a flurry of points on a Morris 3, a Hayward and-1, a Hayward 3, a Tatum transition dunk, another Morris 3, and then finally a Hayward 3 put the Celtics up 10 to close out the Pacers.
This is when the Celtics are at their best. All year, there were whispers and murmurs about the team being too talented, that Danny Ainge should have traded players who need the ball in their hands to be effective for more role players. However, they stayed the course and in this playoff respite before Round 2, they can enjoy just how well they’re playing together.
For most of the year, Irving was the lightning rod for criticism about team chemistry and not reaching expectations, but after a series sweep and the team winning 10 of its last 12 games dating back to late March, Kyrie is in a good place.
“It’s exciting to know that when the “pressure” gets high or you’re asked to be challenged in a certain situation, we have guys that can respond to that and respond pretty well. It’s not always going to be perfect, it’s not always going to be the way you expected to be individually, but as long as we stay together as a team, I think that whatever result it is, it’s just more manageable when everyone’s together than just apart. I’m happy about that, that we’re all just diving in, having a blind faith with each other. Just go out there and be great.”