The word tough gets tossed around quite a bit in sports. Basketball players are not exactly known for toughness, fair or unfair. In the NBA, not many teams can match the toughness throughout the Celtics’ roster. It is an undeniable trait found in guys like Marcus Smart, Isiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, among others. As it turned out (especially before Rajon Rondo’s series-ending injury), the Bulls were one of the few teams that could match the Celtics’ grit with guys like Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez, Dwyane Wade (God that hurts to admit, but it’s true.) and Rondo.
That revelation and the death of IT’s sister helped put the Celtics down 2-0. Since then, the Celtics have won six straight. It was quickly evident in Game 1 that the young Wizards will pose a significantly different challenge than Chicago. Good news, Celtics fans. As we’ve seen in the first two games, Washington is not the same type of team as Chicago. In fact, Ian Eagle astutely noted during the Game 2 telecast on TNT that when the game gets physical, the Celtics have made their runs against these young Wizards. The Wizards certainly showed their youth when they chose to make a very odd regular season statement in showing up in all black for the funeral game back in January. In terms of make up, this is an entirely different opponent than Chicago. What else has changed?
For starters, the Wizards are in a similar position as the Celtics: This season is already a success. They are in house money territory, just like the Celtics. That pales in comparison to the veteran urgency from guys like Butler, Wade and Rondo in Round 1. Then, there is defense. In the regular season, Chicago was actually the best defensive team in the East in points allowed per game, at 102.4. On the opposite end, the Wizards allowed 107.4, worst among the top 11 teams in the East this year. There is no defensive monster, like Butler, on the Wizards’ roster. It has not been surprising watching the Celtics average nearly 119 pts in regulation in the first two games of this series. Lastly, unlike the Bulls, the Wizards are not a team that dominates the glass. While the Bulls had some mobility and athleticism up front with Lopez, Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis, Martin Gortat and Jason Smith are not nearly as mobile for Washington.
It’s never been about talent with this group. It’s about a winning culture that’s been carefully cultivated by Danny Ainge, and carried out to near perfection by Brad Stevens. Tough, hungry and coachable players. Hunger is an absolutely underrated trait in NBA players. Salaries have jumped to historic heights. Even before the salary cap skyrocketed, there were NBA players who earned big contracts and then took a knee. That issue is more prevalent in today’s game than at any other time in the league’s history. The Celtics do not have that issue, because their young players are hungry. It is not uncommon to see it in youngsters like Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown, who are trying to make names for themselves and get to that second contract. However, it is extremely uncommon to have as many hungry, overlooked veterans as the Celtics have. No one epitomizes that itch to prove people wrong more than Thomas. In terms of players on their second contracts, there is not a single player in basketball who was more underpaid this year than Thomas. Not one. This is hardly a newsflash but we are witnessing greatness with Isiah.
It should be noted that, after a 3-9 start this year, Washington went 50-26 heading into this series with the Celtics. However, with each game, this Celtics roster looks more and more comfortable. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this team right now is how well they are playing when EVERYTHING is on the line late in these playoff games. Every Celtic seems to be playing well or all-out peaking at the right time. Brad Stevens has pushed ALL the right buttons. Whether it was inserting Gerald Green into the starting lineup and going small down 2-0 to the Bulls (when Boston was getting CREAMED on the glass, I might add), protecting Isiah from switching on to Butler in the Chicago series, letting Rozier earn minutes, benching Horford four minutes into Game 1 (and then watching him come back in and come up just one board shy of a triple double) or having the confidence to play Brown in crunch time after gluing him to the bench, it HAS ALL WORKED. Adversity is a tricky deal. This team faced it IN SPADES against Chicago. The result has been unquestionable growth over the past two weeks. The Boston Celtics are coming of age.