With the Celtics sweep of the Brooklyn Nets in round one, Boston firmly established themselves as championship contenders while showing signs they have what it takes to get themselves to the top of the NBA mountain.
Entering the series, the Celtics had played terrific basketball since mid-January, having the NBA’s best record in that span while also in the top two the league in offensive and defensive rating. Standing in their way in the first round, however, was a Nets team led by the All-World Kevin Durant and Celtics nemesis (and All-Star) Kyrie Irving. There was logical reasoning for the Celtics to lose their final game of the regular season to avoid facing the Nets in the first round. Instead, the Celtics went for the second seed and a matchup with the Nets. In the end, they were right.
The Celtics won four consecutive close games against the Nets. The average margin of victory of 4.5 points per game is the third lowest in a sweep in NBA history. The days of November-December when Boston was abysmal in close games feels like years ago. The Celtics withstood a 39-point game from Irving in Game 1 and a 39-point outburst from Durant in Game 4. They also overcame a 17-point deficit in Game 2. Ime Udoka vastly outcoached Steve Nash and had a plan for the Celtics to defend Durant as well as anyone has in his career.
Two developments beyond the series win itself bode especially well for Boston’s chances at a championship. The first is late game execution. In Game 1, the Celtics gathered a Durant missed three with 13 seconds to go and chose not to call a timeout. Jaylen Brown passed to Marcus Smart who faked a three and then passed to a cutting Jayson Tatum for the spinning layup game-winner as time expired. That kind of ball movement and unselfishness is critical to winning close playoff games.
The other significant development is the Celtics overall mental toughness. Whenever the Nets made a significant run, the Celtics answered. There are examples in each game of this, but the road games in Brooklyn personify it the most. In Game 3 the Celtics went on a 7-0 run from the 4:30-3:00 mark of the fourth quarter to separate themselves and in Game 4 the Nets got the game to within one point with 1:28 left after Tatum fouled out before the Celtics went on a 4-1 run to put the game out of reach.
Just several months ago the Celtics were an average basketball team that was filled with question marks. After Monday night’s win, they have shown they have talent and execution to win a championship. The road will only get harder as a likely matchup with the defending champion Bucks awaits in the second round, but Boston should go in feeling confident.