Tomase: Time to start believing, because Celtics could win this whole damn thing

John Tomase
May 15, 2018 - 11:49 am
Marcus Smart

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

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Klay Thompson caught a pass all alone on the left wing, took one dribble to set himself, and drilled a 3-pointer with no Rockets even remotely threatening his airspace.

"Jaylen Brown would've closed out on that," I thought.

Down the other end, Houston cleared out for James Harden, or Chris Paul, or Eric Gordon, or even old friend Gerald Green in a failed attempt to beat the defending champion Warriors one-on-one without running any semblance of a team offense.

"Harden's a great scorer," I thought, "but you've got to move the ball to beat the Celtics."

And so it went watching the Warriors beat the Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday. A game which should've held zero relevance for the Celtics instead felt like an honest-to-God scouting opportunity.

Because if you're a Celtics fan, the only thought going through your head watching Steph Curry dish and Harden score was this: Pay attention, because we're gonna get one of these teams.

The dawning realization that the Celtics could soon be playing for Banner 18 didn't really compute until about 10 minutes into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday when the Celtics opened up a 21-7 lead on LeBron James and Co. by doing whatever they wanted.

They bullied the Cavs in the paint, scored off the dribble, and made 3-pointers. On the other end, they harassed LeBron James into what would be a game-high seven turnovers and put the clamps on his supporting cast. Cleveland missed its first 12 3-pointers and finished 4-for-26.

It won't be that easy moving forward. It can't be. Can it?

Maybe it can. Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum are hitting milestones like frenzied newborns, from sitting to crawling to standing to walking to running to dunking in seven months. Their baby books are already full.

The Celtics play better defense than any team remaining, and by a lot. We've heard so much about positionless rosters over the last five years being filled with athletic scoring wings, but the Celtics have proven that concept really applies to the defensive end.

Name another team that can regularly switch its point guard onto a power forward and its center onto a point guard. Marcus Smart has matched up with everyone from Kristaps Porzingis to Paul Millsap to Jabari Parker. Last round he bodied up Dario Saric for the key turnover of the Sixers clincher. He'll take his reps on LeBron James in this round, too.

Meanwhile, Al Horford has guarded everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Ben Simmons to Kevin Love this postseason. He can bang with Tristan Thompson and move his feet to stay in front of Giannis. That kind of versatility makes finding mismatches nearly impossible.

The Celtics fill the floor with such players, which is the one area where Terry Rozier actually does represent an upgrade over Kyrie Irving. They can switch anytime they want without ending up colossally overmatched in the same way the Sixers were when J.J. Redick ended up on Tatum or Brown, or the Cavs were with George Hill on basically anyone.

And so we watch the Western Conference Finals with an eye on how the Celtics might compete. It's hard to imagine they have enough offense to hang with the Warriors, who will not miss the open 3-pointers that bedeviled the Sixers and now the Cavs.

Except then you consider how well the C's have played against the Warriors over the last three years. They beat them by four at home this year and lost by four on the road in a game that came down to the final seconds. Last year the two teams traded road blowouts. In 2016 the C's lost a double-overtime thriller in Boston and then ended Golden State's bid for a perfect home record in April.

It's crazy to watch two games between the haves this way, because the Celtics are supposed to be have-nots. And maybe that will be the case this time around, too. Maybe James will put on his cape and the C's won't have an answer.

Except they've responded to every challenge, and they're not built to fold like the Raptors or even the Pacers, whose end-of-game execution failed them in the first round.

They're mentally and physically tough and they're unflappable. Bring on the best of the West. The Celtics weren't even supposed to get this far.

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