Considering how much the Celtics leave achieved in the 2018 Playoffs, there shouldn’t be anything else that needs to be said about their resolve. Based on advanced analytics, they’ve overachieved — and considerably — through the first two rounds, winning against the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks in their opening series and then against the favored Sixers in the conference semifinals. And so it comes as no surprise that they’re competing against the Cavaliers, the reigning East champions spearheaded by historically great LeBron James, with supreme confidence.
So what if the Celtics have missed All-Star Gordon Hayward since Day One of their 2017-18 campaign? And so what if top dog Kyrie Irving joined him in the sidelines last month and will be missing the remainder of the playoffs? Under the Brad Stevens dispensation, they’ve always been about making their whole even better than the sum of their parts, hence their uncanny knack for producing results the metrics argue they don’t have any business even getting close to.
Parenthetically, the Celtics provided yet another prime example of their resilience with their shellacking of the Cavaliers yesterday. The odds were against them heading into the best-of-seven affair, and in large measure because they faced the daunting prospect of containing — or, rather, trying to contain — the scorching-hot James. Instead, they showed from the get-go that their indomitable will backstopped by outstanding leadership from the hot seat allows them to exceed expectations. Whatever else anybody may think they’re capable of putting up, they’ll invariably trump.
True, all the Celtics did yesterday was protect home court. For all the embarrassment they dealt, they got just one win, and will have to be even more ready tomorrow. As Stevens noted in his post-mortem, they believe the Cavaliers will be primed to deal a “heavyweight punch” in Game Two. On the other hand, they have, at the very least, managed to disabuse all and sundry of the notion that they’re around merely to act as victims of James’ assault on the record books. No doubt, he will be better — make that much, much better — tomorrow, but so will they.
Indeed, the Celtics are used to being counted out, so they’re not taking conventional wisdom’s gross underestimation of their capacity to succeed as an affront. Heck, they’ll even grant that the best of the Cavaliers can beat their best. As they’ve kept showing over and over again, however, real life is never ironed out to approximate the ideal. And while they may be offensively challenged at times, the other end of the court is where they hang their hats on.
Perhaps James is due for yet another eye-popping performance. Perhaps those around him will go along for the ride anew. Perhaps the anticipated “heavyweight punch” does get to land. Through all the speculation, however, one thing is certain: The Celtics will not make the going easy. The Cavaliers will have to bleed for every point, just as the Bucks and Sixers did before them.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.