You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of Massachusetts that feels any sympathy for the Boston Celtics. Not only are they on the cusp of the NBA Finals, but they also have bigger stars on the bench in suits than most teams do healthy.
Next season the Celtics will have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back to headline a roster that has enjoyed an extended playoff run thanks to Al Horford’s underappreciated consistency, the grit of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, and the precocious play of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
In the meantime, they’ve become both an inspiration and potential model for less-star studded franchises going forward.
Conventional wisdom suggests that whichever team has the best player in the postseason has the advantage. The Celtics eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Philadelphia 76ers (Joel Embiid) in the first two rounds of the playoffs despite falling on the wrong side of the talent ledger. Not only were Giannis and Embiid the best and most talented players in each of those matchups, but they also met individual expectations.
Brad Stevens has done a masterful job of juggling the daunting task of stopping the opponent’s best offensive player while also sticking with Boston’s core defensive philosophies. That allowed the Celtics to defeat the Bucks and Sixers without shutting down Antetokounmpo and Embiid. Instead, they focused on running shooters off the three-point line. Teams are shooting 34.4% on 26.9 three-point attempts against them, both of which ranks in the top five.
While he may have looked rigid in Game 4 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stevens has also been willing to shuffle his starting lineup and rotation. Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeleye have been in-and-out of the starting lineup over the past month-plus.
It comes as no surprise that the Celtics have embraced a team-first approach in the face of the iso-heavy attacks we often see in the postseason. They are averaging 298.8 passes per game in the playoffs, better than all but three teams.
Tatum leads them in scoring, but at 18 points per game he ranks 24th among all players. Boston is the only team to win a series without a player averaging at least 21.4 points. They win by committee.
They’ve won 11 of their 17 playoff games, but on only three occasions has the game’s leading scorer worn green and white. They’ve had four different players pace them in scoring during their run. Conversely, LeBron James has led the Cavaliers in scoring in all but one of their games. In that contest, Kevin Love outscored him by two.
The Celtics have five players attempting at least 10 shots per game (Marcus Smart could be considered the sixth at 9.8 FGAs). The rest of the conference finalists have eight combined.
You’d have to go back to the 2004 Detroit Pistons to find a potential Finals participant with this balanced of a roster. You can still advance deep into the playoffs without a high-usage player.
Horford has been Boston’s best player, but their season would have ended in the first round if they hadn’t been able to successfully lean on Brown, Rozier and Tatum.
Much like we’ve come to expect star power to dictate how the postseason plays out, we also anticipate young players freezing in big playoff moments until they’ve gotten some seasoning.
We saw Ben Simmons, one of the most talented and dynamic young players in the game, struggle to find his way at times. Karl-Anthony Towns, who averaged 21.3 points on the year, took a combined 18 shots in his first two playoff games. For every Donovan Mitchell, there’s a rookie or playoff newbie that falls on the opposite end of the spectrum.
“Micah Shrewsberry has spent a ton of time with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum over the last two years. We do everything we can to help expedite their learning curve, but it’s not just that,” Stevens said.
“It’s everybody in the organization – our strength staff, our training staff talking to them about the importance of diet, sleep. Extra work in the weight room to keep your body feeling good. Every work on your pliability. These guys are really committed to that. They both take care of their bodies at a very good level and I think the messaging has been good.”
The Celtics have called on Brown and Tatum in the wake of losing Hayward and then Irving. They wouldn’t be in the Eastern Conference Finals without Brown and Tatum, but the young duo also wouldn’t be prepared for this stage if they weren’t empowered throughout the year.
If Danny Ainge’s plan for this season unfolded as desired, they’d be right where they are now. They’d just have leaned heavily on their stars, much like we’ve come to expect from contenders over the last decade.
These Celtics have given hope to small market teams without an overworldly superstar(s). They’ve proven you can make a deep playoff run without a handful of $20 million players. If you have great coaching, strong foundational structure and versatile players, you can build a roster that continually knocks off more top-heavy teams.
It isn’t easy to hire a coach like Stevens or build a front office that has hit as often as the Celtics have in recent years, but doing so is easier than filling max contract slots with future Hall of Famers.
The Celtics will be following a much different blueprint for success soon, but that doesn’t eliminate the path they’ve paved for teams to win in a different way than we’ve come to expect.