The Celtics Were Finally Forced To Do Cool Stuff

For just the third time this postseason, the Boston Celtics played in a game decided by single digits, coming back to win Game 3 against the Pacers in Indiana, 114-111. They snatched a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, and as the Pacers will be without Tyrese Haliburton, whose lingering hamstring maladies flared up and left him cheering on his teammates in a cardigan, Indiana is super-turbo dead. Boston is going to the NBA Finals, without ever having been meaningfully tested, which is both not their fault and not really a surprise. The Eastern Conference playoffs have been a rather grim march to this point, though on Saturday night, the Celtics were pushed into a corner and finally forced to show something thrilling and novel. They responded with some really cool basketball stuff.

The Celtics made two specific plays at the end of the fourth quarter that qualify, there. With 76 seconds left, trailing by five, Jayson Tatum got the ball off a down screen and attacked the paint. He’d just hit a three to make it a one-possession game, only for Andrew Nembhard to swish a pair of free throws and push the Celtics to a somewhat desperate place. Tatum forced Myles Turner and Pascal Siakam to collapse. Seemingly without passing lanes, Tatum fired a behind the back bounce pass out to the corner to Al Horford, who nailed a three. It was the coolest pass I’ve seen from the Celtics, who are not much of a passing team, in a while.

After a couple more nervous possessions, Tatum missed a layup that would have given Boston a three-point lead with 10 seconds left. Nembhard grabbed the rebound, looked at his coach, and, after Rick Carlisle rolled the dice and refused to call a timeout, attacked Jrue Holiday. The Canadian wing, who’d had a great game, shrugged off the first bit of Holiday’s pressure and dribbled into the middle of the lane, into what had very recently been open pasture. But Holiday recovered and beat Nembhard to the spot; Nembhard seemed startled to find his match-up waiting for him and fully stanced-up mere seconds after faltering, and Holiday swiped a very cool inside-hand steal to seal the game.

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Your mileage will inevitably vary on how much you will “enjoy” the Boston Celtics doing cool basketball stuff, whether due to Bostonian, Simmonsian, or Tatumian factors, each or all of which will rouse one’s inner hater. I hope the haters would agree at least that the Celtics doing cool basketball stuff is vastly preferable to watch to them min-maxing their way through teams without once being disrupted by anything other than aberrant shooting luck. I watched the Celtics play a dozen games this playoffs and felt that I learned nothing. Jaylen Brown grumpily asking to be anointed is annoying, though I got the sense from that press conference that he was, like me, almost annoyed by how his team hadn’t truly been forced to show how great they are.

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What makes the NBA Playoffs so great is their length. There’s a whole fourth third of the regular season to be played out, night by night; it stands to reason that it would become increasingly painful and demanding as teams progress through it. I don’t care as much about heart of a champion-ass cliches as much as I would like to see the best basketball possible, the sort where two teams push themselves and each other to their limits and then, somehow, beyond them. That cauldron is where you learn what a team is really about, and though Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been there before many times over, this Celtics group is a different team.

Four of the eight guys in Boston’s playoff rotation last year are gone. Longtime Celtics antagonist Holiday has been starting at point guard, and after getting off to an alarmingly slow start in the playoffs, he has finally found his footing. Derrick White has maybe been Boston’s second-best player, especially as their identity as a small, long-range shooting, ball-stopping machine has coalesced. Their bench consists entirely of Sam Hauser, Luke Kornet, and Payton Pritchard, the last of those being the only one ever to have any playoff responsibilities before. As much as they have benefitted from playing three teams facing serious injury crises (that almost undersells it), they too have been without Kristaps Porzingis, who was one of their best players and identity-shaping presences this season. There is still much to be learned about this team, is my point, and there have been precious few circumstances that have been anything like an effective test any of it.

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Boston has been the best team in the NBA all season, and they will probably be favored to win the championship, no matter who survives the Western Conference Finals. It is a strange thing to regard a team like that as simultaneously so clearly great and so sorely untested. It will not be their fault if they win an easier ring, though as a fan of the sport and someone who finds it essential to canonize every great team alongside both historical and contemporaneous great teams, I would prefer to see a team struggle and overcome and scrap and fight their way to a championship.

That is more fun for me as a person watching it, admittedly, but it’s also more revealing. Even if the Celtics do roll through the rest of the playoffs as they’ve rolled through it to this point, the only component of their identity that will actually matter enough to be memorable is their ceaseless winning. Which is why I enjoyed Game 3 more than any other Celtics game this postseason. They were forced to reach a new level, and the way they achieved that was thrilling to behold. Whether Luka Doncic’s Mavericks or Anthony Edwards’ Wolves advance out of the Western Conference, the Celtics will soon, finally face their first true test in the Finals. I hope they show us even more new stuff.

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