Scenes From a Playoff Upset

A month ago, an injury-ravaged Celtics team was getting the “Good job, good effort” treatment. Now, they’re two wins away from the Finals. Can Boston’s improbable run continue in Cleveland?

There are two general theories when it comes to athletes and resilience. One is that it’s an inherent trait, something you either have or lack. The other is that it’s something you can build, something that develops incrementally as you experience stressors and respond either positively or negatively.

The truth is that no one really knows why, when faced with adversity either on or off the court (or with some combination of the two), some athletes perform better and some athletes perform worse. Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, this Celtics team is proving time and time again to be in the former group—the latest evidence being turning an 11-point shortfall against the greatest player of his generation into a 13-point win and a 2-0 advantage in the Eastern Conference finals.

No one knows why Marcus Smart, his thumb likely still hurting and his mother beginning chemotherapy for a rare form of cancer, takes a blow and comes back twice as strong. Why he can lose his grip on a ball, throwing it straight up into the air, then catch it and instantly fire a pass that leads to a basket … and immediately put himself in position to steal a pass and produce a dunk to cap a four-point, 13.2-second swing. Why he can miss a shot or commit a turnover, brush it off as if it never happened, and later run up behind an unsuspecting foe, strip him of the ball, then dive out of bounds to save the possession.

And no one knows why J.R. Smith, his shot not falling (0-for-7 in Game 2) and his defense sorely lacking, can’t shrug off the frustration. Why he channels all that failure into a self-victimizing act of aggression against a defenseless opponent, shoving Al Horford in the back in midair, sending the Celtic tumbling to the ground and earning an earful from Smart. That, too, led to four points, and not for the Cavaliers.

After LeBron’s dominant first-quarter performance on Tuesday—James: 11 minutes, 21 points, 8-for-13 shooting, 4-for-7 on 3s; Boston: 23 points, 9-for-20 shooting, 4-for-8 on 3s—each new defensive stop and successful offensive possession by the Celtics added to the team’s positive momentum, the sense they were getting closer and closer to their goal.

And yet each time, James seemed to have an answer. Marcus Morris hit a 3 to pull the Celtics within two, and James stepped into a 3 on the other end to push it back to five. In the third, Morris pulled off a three-point play to tie the game, and then LeBron got Aron Baynes in a switch, crossed over and hit a floater in the lane. If momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, LeBron started an entire homestand’s worth in the first three quarters.

But as they’ve done throughout the 2017-18 season, regular and post alike, the C’s looked to their leaders and saw no sign of panic. Not in Al Horford, not in Smart, and certainly not in Brad Stevens, whose on- and off-court demeanor mirrors that of a race car driver in a sedan in stop-and-go traffic. He may weave his way in and out of lanes, but it never feels like he’s anything less than in total control.

“I’ve been lucky to play for another pretty good coach in [Gregg] Popovich,” Baynes said while strolling through the TD Garden tunnel after the 107-94 victory. “They’re very similar in how they maintain themselves. It really feeds through the team. It’s a great factor to have. They just maintain their head every time we step out there, [and when] we come into a timeout, they’re cool, calm, and collected.

“They make us focus on the right things and not all the extraneous things that are happening out there.”

So when star players are lost to injury when opponents hit shots left and right, when premature confetti falls, these Celtics aren’t thrown off. They don’t allow themselves to be. They can’t afford to.

“Even during our early winning streak this year,” Stevens said, referring to the 16 straight wins the Celtics rattled off soon after losing Gordon Hayward, “we weren’t that good, but we were finding ways to win, and a lot of times we were coming back from down and everything else. Just got a tough, resilient group of guys, and we’re going to have to be even tougher and more resilient as we head to Cleveland.”

The momentum is still building, long after it was supposed to have worn out. But the Celtics know there is only one way to keep that going; that the legs feed the wolf.

Sometimes, you can feel the shift happen. Though the Boston crowds have been vociferous, as usual, there’s been a sense in TD Garden during the past two rounds that the fans are waiting for the other shoe to drop. When the opponent makes a run, it’s as if the patrons are collectively holding their breath. Is this it, is this the time the clock strikes midnight and the gleaming carriage turns back into a pumpkin?

Before Game 2 against the Sixers, during the elevator ride that brings media overflow up toward the arena rafters, a talkative attendant rattled off the Philly celebrities rumored to be in attendance: Meek Mill. Kevin Hart. And maybe, just maybe, Will Smith.

Are there any Boston celebrities? someone asked. Maybe a Wahlberg?

After a pause, “Oh, I think one of the [Patriots] defensive backs is here,” the attendant said. “The one they got from Buffalo?”

At one point in the second half, after Joel Embiid converted an and-1, the crowd—fired up by the Celtics’ comeback—started a sustained Fuck-the-Process chant. (Pity the parents who brought young children to the Garden.) It was a flex, considering the hosts needed to climb out of a 22-point hole during the first half. But the fans could sense that the momentum had shifted.

The confidence was building.

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Brian Windhorst, the éminence grise of LeBron chroniclers, wrote Wednesday that the Cavs are dealing with organizational fatigue, or what Miami Heat impresario Pat Riley called “the disease of me.”

Without pulling up an armchair and putting on a cardigan, there were moments after Game 2 that seemed to hint at the stresses these Cavs are under. Tyronn Lue, asked why Rodney Hood is still in the rotation, snapped “Because I want him there.” And after a follow-up that amounted to, “But why?” Lue seemingly ignored the question and said, “Well, I’m going to keep playing him. He’ll be better.”

When James and Kevin Love took the podium together a little later, Love proceeded to sit, silently, beside the higher-wattage personality while James fielded questions. Every now and then, Love would smile at James’s answer, let his gaze wander off the podium, or generally seem to wonder why he was there. It got to the point that James, unprompted, brought it up.

“The only way I probably won’t get no sleep tonight is if Kev don’t get asked a question,” James said. “I’m going to lose a lot of sleep if someone doesn’t ask him a question.”

They played it for laughs, but along with Lue’s exchange the moments were illustrative. For Cleveland, there is LeBron and then there’s everything, and everyone, else.

And when that formula produces a 42-point triple-double for LeBron and a loss for the Cavs, they’re left with more questions than answers.

“It’s easy to make a narrative when you win or lose to say, ‘OK, you guys played bad offensively and you lost,’” LeBron said after the Cavs’ Game 1 loss, “and then you win, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you played better.’”

He was talking about physicality, specifically, but the point about narratives is germane to this strange Celtics season. There have been at least three narratives constructed for Boston:

  • Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will make Boston a contender in the East, though they’re not good enough to beat the best in the West.
  • Kyrie’s stepping up and leading the younger Boston roster to contention despite the gruesome season-ending injury to Hayward just minutes into the opener.
  • Kyrie’s season-ending injury means the Celtics aren’t true contenders, but the young players on the roster will still get some valuable postseason experience even if they lose to Giannis … or Embiid … or LeBron.

Whatever the prevailing assumption at the time, Boston has been one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference all season, starting with the 16-game win streak and continuing through the first two games of the conference finals. Because of all the roster attrition, it doesn’t feel like any of this postseason success should be happening. Though they’ve had home-court advantage in each series to date (going 9-0 at the Garden through Game 2), they’ve been the presumed underdog in each. But instead of getting caught up on the odds or on the Celtics in street clothes, consider the Celtics still in uniform:

Jayson Tatum (have you heard he’s only 20?), Jaylen Brown (an old man at 21), and Horford are all former no. 3 overall picks. Marcus Smart was a no. 6 overall pick. Backup point guard Terry Rozier was picked no. 16, just outside the lottery. And Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes can both play the 3-and-D roles they’re being asked to perform—even though Baynes had made only four 3s in his career before this postseason. Obviously, the Celtics would rather have their two max-money All-Stars healthy and contributing, but the idea that the team would be lost without them was perhaps always a bit of a bridge too far.

Of the 12 players to appear in the postseason for Boston, only Rozier and backup point guard Shane Larkin are shorter than 6-foot-4 or lighter than 205 pounds. Danny Ainge has built a roster in the Warriors’ image, full of big, physical guys capable of switching screens on defense and making outside shots on offense. Among the seven Celtics averaging more than 15 minutes in the postseason, only Smart can’t consistently knock down 3s (22.2 percent) and only Baynes averages single digits in scoring (6.4 points per game).

The Celtics are tied for the third-best defensive rating (104.0) in the playoffs to date, according to NBA.com/Stats, and since the start of the second round they’re first (100.5).

Before the second-round series against Philadelphia tipped off, an evangelist stood outside TD Garden with a sign: “Warning: Flee from the wrath to come.” It was unclear if the sign referred to Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and the Sixers, or if it was meant for them. The Celtics won Game 1 by double digits, overcame a 22-point deficit in Game 2, and won Game 3 in overtime. The Celtics closed out the favored 76ers thanks to another late rally, which is quickly becoming the team’s trademark.

It’s important to note that the TD Garden magic has not been transferrable; the Celtics are 1-4 on the road in the playoffs, and they’re traveling to Cleveland to face a desperate team. LeBron James has lost only seven times at home in the past four postseasons in Cleveland, and four of those came to the Warriors in the Finals.

For Game 5 against Philly, co-owner Wyc Grousbeck brought in a big name that hadn’t been on anyone’s lips in years. Former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe either slayed with his talk of Terry rosé or far overstayed the moment, depending on your allegiance. Either way, when the Celtics showed him on the Jumbotron during the game, opening his jacket to reveal a Rozier jersey, the crowd went wild. Outside of the one for Bill Russell during the Philly series, it may have been the biggest ovation a former Boston sports icon has received during this run.

And honestly, considering it happened in Tom Brady country, that might be the most unexpected part of this whole affair to date.

 NBAE/Getty Images

There have been hometown celebrities in the house, as the playoffs have continued. Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and David Ortiz have all made appearances. Joe Kelly wore an “Al Horford Is Good” tee. Gronk tweeted congratulations. The city is rallying behind the team’s run, shifting attention from the Patriots offseason, the Bruins’ own playoff exit, and the Red Sox’s early-season ups and downs. There’s more and more green on the streets. Tatum’s no. 0 is increasingly ubiquitous on game days. And the Scary Terry web stores appear to be doing brisk business.

While everyone waited for the Cleveland coach to take the podium after Game 2, Ortiz made his way through a crowd of VIPs toward a side exit. Before the Sox great could make his escape, though, he was lassoed into a series of selfies with members of the extended Ainge clan.

Papi smiled patiently, beatific in an all-white getup, the centerpiece of which was a white-and-green Horford jersey. The two have a relationship, built on their shared roots in the Dominican Republic and enhanced by their status as star athletes in Boston.

After a little too much smartphone fumbling, Celtics president Danny Ainge stepped in to take the photo himself. And so as the linchpin of Boston’s most recent unexpected champion posed for a picture, the architect of the team that’s now six wins away from the city’s latest pushed the right button once again.

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