After a 25-win season a year ago, the Boston Celtics are back in the postseason for the first time since 2013. Brad Stevens' 15-win improvement to 40-42 was good enough to not only clinch a playoff spot, but lock up the seventh seed in East. These scrappy C's finished the regular-season with the most wins in the conference at 24-12 (since February 2). So how did these guys, who were suppose to be in year-two of a 'rebuilding-phase' now find themselves with an opportunity to make some noise against LeBron James and the second seed Cavaliers?
You have to go back to the beginning of the season when the Celtics showed great promise, but were losing close games and blowing big leads. Boston got off to a 13-26 start, and once Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green were traded by mid-January, most fans began to believe this team was destined to put their hope in a bunch of ping-pong balls once again. By all-star break Danny Ainge had pulled off 10 trades, and it didn't look like a move at the deadline would happen.
Enter Isaiah Thomas.
Though it was thought that the C's best player; Jared Sullinger would be lost for the season, Stevens continued to find ways to win. In his 22 games (15-7), Thomas added more depth to the bench and brought a 'let's win now' attitude that was already catching on before his arrival. A playoff push actually became a reality at a time when most fans that wanted the Celtics to 'tank' for better lottery chances, suddenly were cheering for victories instead of losses.
"I love the fact that our guys are preparing, that they have something to really go out and play for every night. These last couple of months, you can see in the players -- that’s their goal," said Ainge. "Nobody thought they could do it. Everybody thought they were a really bad, bad team. I think they've been playing a lot better the last couple of months. I've enjoyed watching the team play; they play with great passion. I think that [head coach] Brad [Stevens] has done a masterful job of using a lot of players to get us to where we are where right now, where we have a chance." [ESPN Boston]
After 11 trades, 41 roster players and no all-stars, Stevens finally had the group he would lead into the postseason. Beating playoff teams like Memphis, Brooklyn, Cleveland (twice) and Toronto (twice) in the last month of the regular season, showed that they were serious about playing games in late April, early May.
Here's a look at some factors on what turned the Celtics 'nay-sayers' into believers
Defense wins ball-games
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics do not have a defensive specialist (Avery Bradley is the closest one they have, but he's a perimeter defender at best). They have to play collective team defense to slow opponents down. Especially when their shots are not falling, they can not afford to let other teams run them into the ground and call on just one individual to stop or contain the other team's best player.
Despite having two seven-footers in Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk, they are far from being rim protectors. Zeller is a good presence down-low but is not a shot blocker, while Olynyk (though he's
gotten better lately) tends to miss defensive assignments. So how did they go from teams scoring at least 100 points 60.7 percent of the time before the all-star break to 51.9 percent?
The answer is help defense. Boston ranks eighth in the NBA in steals per game at 8.2 and eighth in the league in forced turnovers at 14.6 a contest. The Celtics also are the third best team in basketball when it comes to defending the-3 as opponents only make 33.6 percent of their shots from behind the arc.
They have to continue to pressure the ball and help out on D every chance they get if they want to keep up with Cleveland come Sunday and extend this series.
The emergence of Avery Bradley
After last season, and re-signing in Boston long-term, A.B. had a break-out year offensively in a down season for the Celtics. This season, he's remained relatively healthy and after the trade that sent two-team leaders in Rondo and Green, Bradley assumed the role of 'captain' without being giving the title officially. Being the longest tenured Celtic (since 2010-11), and for someone who's seen a lot in his four years, Bradley quietly has come into his own as not only defensive minded, but the team's best two-way player. A slasher, shooter, and defender who can effect a game at any moment.
He knows what it is to be a Celtic, thus why he won the Red Auerbach Award this year. More importantly he's an extension of coach Brad Stevens who always remains cool, calm and collected even the tightest of situations. Look for Bradley to be very important come the next few weeks.
The key to every good team is a great bench
If you haven't notice already the Celtics have a mighty deep bench. Stevens had to deal with trades, and injuries before really sticking with one sold starting lineup. But regardless of how players were in and out of the starting-five, his second unit has always come through. Especially with the addition of Isaiah Thomas, the bench remains as strong as ever. Not to mention the return of Sullinger, makes this playoff run a lot easier when you add a weapon of his caliber.
It's been one of Boston's strong traits all season really. Before the all-star break the C's were seventh in the league in bench scoring at 39.5 points per-game. The following month in a half, the Celtics bench scoring was an NBA best 44 points per contest. For the year they finished in first at over 41-points per-game. So watch out Cleveland.
With players such Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, Gigi Datome and Kelly Olynyk, they have all had moments where they have shined these last few weeks when called upon on both ends of the floor, not to mention Thomas (twice has won player of the week), Sullinger and even Gerald Wallace (the widely seasoned-vet) are always ready.
Evan Turner the point guard
The former number two-pick of the 2010 draft was suppose to back up Jeff Green. Instead he became Brad Stevens number one ball-handler and playmaker. During the pre-season it seemed like a temporary fix while Rondo healed from a broken hand, but after a December trade that sent the Celtics captain to Dallas, Turner was the permanent solution (no offense to Marcus Smart). His role became much more important than most would realize. After buzzer-beating shots against Portland, Washington and Atlanta, it was clear the C's had a go-to-corer in the making.
Turner known primarily as a scorer, as done a little bit of everything to help this team win. It should come as no surprise that he is averaging a career high in assists at 5.5 per game. He was been given the ball by Stevens to run with it, only he transformed his game to fit into the Celtics system and it has paid-off big time. Though only earning about $3.3 million this season, he's been worth every penny and then some. The ball moment begins with E.T. and it has spread as the C's are fourth in the league in team assists at 24.5 per contest.
Turner has three career triple-doubles all with the Celtics this season. Look for him to have the job of guarding LeBron for most of the series beginning on Sunday.
Take a look at Turner's number before and after the all-star break
Before the break (51 games): 8.8 points, 4.6 assists, 4.7 rebounds
After the break (31 games): 10.7 points, 7 assists, 5.7 rebounds
Coach of the month; Stevens (COY candidate) somehow got his team of young hungry ball-players to buy into what ever he was selling. They're not only in the playoffs, they're challenging one of the best teams in the league in the Cavs. They control their own destiny to get where they're at, winning their last sixth straight (the longest winning streak of the year) to wrap up the season.
That was our goal," said Jared Sullinger. "To you, it might be overachieving. To us, it's just another day at the ballpark." [ESPN Boston]
They truly believe they can 'shock' the world and if you've been watching this team very closely over the last two months, as I have, you too have probably become a believer even though common sense has told you not to.
Good luck boys
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