Following Monday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, there’s a palpable level of anxiety permeating through Boston — and the wider Celtics fan base. Brad Stevens’ well-drilled team currently leads the series 3-1, but the prospect of the Sixers making history – and securing a berth in the Eastern Conference finals – isn’t being universally dismissed. This is made all the more peculiar by the fact that a team down 3-0 has never won an NBA playoff series.
A Battle of Attrition
One does not, however, have to look very far to appreciate why Boston might feel vulnerable. At multiple junctures this year, the Celtics’ season has been effectively written-off – and often with good reason. The devastating loss of Gordon Heyward in the first quarter of the first game was widely considered to be fatal to Boston’s title hopes. Then, the injury, late in the regular season, to Kyrie Irving was thought to be enough to prevent the Celtics from even reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. In amongst the season-ending injuries to their All-Stars, Stevens and the Celtics have, in recent weeks, also been forced to work around the health of Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Boston’s ‘next-man-up’ approach has been tested to its limits.
Game Four against Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center was a battle of attrition. The Sixers were no more efficient from the field, but took 19 more shots than Boston. Combine that with the Celtics’ 15 turnovers, and the Sixers landed on a winning formula. But while records are meant to be broken, the Celtics shouldn’t be losing sleep over the prospect of the Sixers becoming the first team (of 129) to overturn a three-zip series deficit. The Celtics simply didn’t respond to TJ McConnell’s inclusion in Game Four which allowed Ben Simmons to spend much of the evening inside the paint. No less significant was the fact that Boston endured a miserable shooting night and were dominated on the offensive boards. All in all, it was one of those nights where nothing quite clicked for a Celtics team that had, until Monday night, managed to absorb everything Joel Embiid, Simmons and co. had thrown their way.
But now Stevens has seen what the Sixers look like with McConnell playing at point, the adjustments will be forthcoming. Keep in mind, too, that the Celtics will be returning to Boston for Game 5. It’s little wonder that odds makers have retained the Celtics as heavy favourites to win the series. Intriguingly, though, it’s worth nothing that much of that is predicated on Boston’s ability to close the series out in 5 games. Implied probability suggests that Philadelphia is just a likely to win the series in 7 as Boston is to win it in 6.
NBA’s Best Coach vs. Best Player
But notwithstanding the challenge that awaits the Celtics at the TD Garden tonight, Boston now looks to have a monumental challenge ahead in the form of LeBron James’ newly-galvanised Cleveland Cavaliers. After a too-close-for-comfort 7 game win against the Indiana Pacers, the Cavs have run roughshod of the East’s number one seed Toronto Raptors. Finally, LeBron’s supporting cast is giving the King the assistance he needs, and the Cavs look every bit the formidable force we have seen in the past two post-seasons. With the Cavs currently listed as -200 to win the East, most betting sites regard Boston as a long shot to make the Finals. This is nothing new, of course. Boston have been a long shot since opening night.
Any efforts, however, to project a Cavs—Celtics series based on the Raptors’ failings would be folly. Boston is a much better-coached team, and one would expect Stevens to provide answers to the questions that stumped Dwayne Casey. We expect Stevens and Celtics to focus on containing the Cavs’ supporting cast while letting LeBron be LeBron. In the same way that the Celtics have slowed down Embiid and Simmons in this series, Stevens will focus on stopping the likes of Kevin Love, JR Smith, and Kyle Korver. The question will then become whether LeBron has the energy to carry the Cavs through yet another seven game series.
Playing With House Money?
The Celtics aren’t quite playing with house money just yet – that would come only if they made the Finals. But Stevens’ young and injury-riddled team is in a position that few thought would be possible when Kyrie Irving was ruled out for the remainder of the season back in early April. So far, the Celtics have defied expectations at every turn, and they can do so again in the Eastern Conference Finals which will pit the NBA’s leading coach against its leading player. Boston shouldn’t be ruled out of reaching the Finals just yet – not by a long way.