It’s easy to now, of course. Boston has been running roughshod on the NBA for four months. They beat Brooklyn a couple of times in February. They hammered Golden State and Denver by double digits in March.
Since Jan. 1, the Celtics led the league in (deep breath) defensive rating, net rating scoring margin, opponent points and opponent field goal percentage, racking up a 34–12 record along the way. In a four-game sweep of Brooklyn they put one of the NBA’s best scorers, Kevin Durant, in a basketball straitjacket.
Give Brooklyn credit: Down 3-0, the Nets played like a group that needed one more outing to Boston. Durant, burnt out on playing facilitator, scored 39 focuses on 31 shots. Kyrie Irving, after a languid seven-point first half, scored seven in the final quarter. Seth Curry got moving.
Goran Dragic made shots. It was a one-guide game with 90 seconds toward play in the fourth. However, Durant, who played a series-high 47 minutes, missed a free toss that would have kept the shortage at one with 22 seconds left, Al Horford tipped in a Marcus Smart miss and the Nets were going into the offseason.
“There’s a great deal of stuff that might factor into why we lose,” Durant said. “Be that as it may, they were only a superior group.”
Indeed. Have been for a while. But the season didn’t begin in January. It began in October, when Boston dropped its first two and was booed in its home opener. They played games in November, when the Celtics were steamrolled by Atlanta, Brooklyn and San Antonio and called a players-only meeting before the team’s eighth game of the season. Boston played 15 games in December. They won six of them. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck told SI last week that, back then, “it felt like a building year.”
This circle back isn’t simply incredible. It’s astounding. Hollywood couldn’t compose a superior content.
Take Ime Udoka: Around Christmas, Udoka looked overmatched. This was the ex-Gregg Popovich aide who generally assumed he was Pop, a disciplinarian without the list of references to back it up. In any case, Udoka adhered to his standards — and his exchanging guarded plot — broke the Celtics of a few awful hostile propensities and transformed Boston into an advanced adaptation of the mid ’90s Pistons. Udoka will not get a whiff of thought for Coach of the Year however attempt to observe one who has been more effective.
Or Marcus Smart. Smart appeared to be on thin ice when Brad Stevens took over as president of basketball operations last spring. Stevens soured some on Smart last season. Didn’t like his shot selection. Or his occasional immaturity. Entering the last year of his contract, Smart looked like a trade candidate. Instead, Stevens locked him up with a four-year extension, Udoka handed him the point guard position and Smart has thrived. He had 11 assists through three quarters in Game 4. He finished with one turnover. Irving shot 43% in this series. He has Smart to thank for it.
He still has the occasional head-scratcher—chasing an improbable steal on Durant late in the fourth quarter, leaving Irving open for a late three—but his productive, game-changing plays far outnumber the reckless ones. Udoka likened the Smart experience to Popovich’s with Manu Ginobili, a free-wheeling guard who played a key role in four Spurs championships.
“Pop would simply agree ‘That is Manu being Manu,'” Udoka said. “You live with it since you know he will wind up making the right play as a rule.”
Tatum, currently one of the NBA’s best scorers, worked on as a passer. He distributed a vocation best 4.4 helps this season. Against Brooklyn, he arrived at the midpoint of 7.3. At the point when the Nets weren’t stressed over Tatum cutting to the crate or covering threes, they were disappointed by his eagerness to make the additional pass. With the clock slowing down in the subsequent quarter, Tatum, perusing a twofold group, whipped a pass to Grant Williams in the corner. Williams thumped down a three, stretching out Boston’s halftime lead to eight.
“I realized I must be large and in charge in this series,” Tatum said. “Be that as it may, I wasn’t astonished by how I played. I really do feel like I’m perhaps the best player.”
Jaylen Brown, who combat wounds and COVID gives from the get-go in the season, played like an All-Star in the last part. Robert Williams formed into an undeniable level two-way focus. Award Williams arose as an adaptable protector and a tip top corner-three shooter. Al Horford, reacquired for Kemba Walker the previous summer, has been a steadying presence on the two finishes of the floor.
The exchange cutoff time bargain that sent out Dennis Schroder brought back Daniel Theis as well as opened up playing time for Payton Pritchard, who shot 47.3% from three after the All-Star break.
Four months ago, Boston looked like a lottery team. Today, they are a legitimate threat to win a championship. There’s a surliness to these Celtics. “It’s us versus everybody,” Smart said. “That’s the mentality that we have, and that’s the mentality that we’re going to keep.” They can defend anyone. Tatum could be the best player in any series—including a likely second-round matchup with Milwaukee. What once looked like a dysfunctional team, incredibly, might actually be the NBA’s best.