There has been a lot of commentary in this city about how the playoffs exposed the Celtics for what they were: a team that is miles away from contending for a championship. The talking heads keep screaming that they got “their doors blown off’ and that “no one predicted a loss to the Hawks in the first round.” Though for a rational person (without an agenda) to have this view point is to ignore the circumstances surrounding the team during their first round series, and ignore the 82 game sample from the regular season in which they were one of the league’s best stories.
There is no doubt that playoff basketball is different that the regular season. This isn’t rocket science, it is true for every sport. In basketball, teams reduce their regular rotation and give more minutes to their top players. During the season, the Celtics went guard/wing heavy with Avery Bradley (33.4), Isaiah Thomas (32.2), Jae Crowder (31.6),Evan Turner (28.0), and Marcus Smart (27.3) leading the way in minutes per game. After they bought out David Lee in January, they had a rotation of three primary big men (Sullinger 23.6, Johnson 22.8 and Olynyk 20.2) with matchups dictating their minutes on a game by game basis.
When they got screwed and drew Atlanta in the first round, it was the worst possible matchup. The Hawks played the Celtics tough all year and sported the NBA’s No. 2 rated defense over the course of the season. Everyone who follows the NBA knew that the Celtics shooters (they do have some) were going to need to show up to win this series, especially without home court. It looked like this was a bad series for Sullinger before it started. The Celtics top seven appeared to be Isaiah/Avery/Marcus/Evan/Jae/Amir/Kelly heading in.
Of those seven players, three of them ultimately didn’t contribute anything close to what they did in the regular season. The question is why not? Were they simply a no show under the bright lights? Even the biggest Celtics haters know the answer to that is a resounding no. Every team battles injuries, and in a closely matched series they can be the factor that tips the outcome in one teams favor. The people who want to think the team is a fraud will say that these are simply excuses but if you examine the team that lost to the Hawks, it hardly resembled the team we fell in love with this year.
Here is a look at these three players:
1. Kelly Olynyk – I love hearing people say that Kelly Olynyk sucks. It’s a good way to tell who watched this team every night and who didn’t. I get it. He’s is goofy, he has long stupid hair, he doesn’t rebound or block enough shots for a big man, etc. That is all true. But it is also true that he was one of the best 7 foot offensive perimeter players in the NBA last year. He led the Celtics from deep shooting 40.5% during the regular season, good for 14th in the entire NBA. He was the first player on that list that can play legitimate minutes at the 5. So in short, he was the best shooting big man in the league this year. Over his three year career he has shot it at a 37.3 percent clip from three over 499 attempts. In today’s NBA, a player of his size and with his range (and ability to put it on the floor) is a dangerous weapon that spaces the floor for his teammates. You could argue that he was one of the three most important players (Isaiah and Avery being the others) heading into the series and he only played 32 minutes. A lot of people questioned his toughness during this series. However with the development that he underwent shoulder surgery that is accompanied by a FIVE month recovery, it is safe to assume that he was truly injured. If not then I certainly respect his dedication to convince us all that he was.
2. Avery Bradley – Jae Crowder was hailed by many as the Celtics best two way player this year. As much as I love his overall game and attitude I respectfully think that distinction belongs to Avery. During the regular season Bradley played in 77 games and was first on the team in Minutes Per Game, second in points (15.2) and second in 3P percentage (36.1) On the defensive end he was a menace and finished 6th in Defensive Player of the Year Voting and was the top vote getter among ALL guards. He was just named to his first first team All NBA Defensive team (was Second team in 2012) with the 3rd most votes behind Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Pretty good no? Aside from his numbers his leadership, stone cold persona and ability to make clutch plays was sorely missed. There is no way to know what would have happened, but it is worth noting that the Celtics were up 3 points with 6 minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Game 1 when he injured his hamstring and was lost for the series. The Celtics would go on to lose game one by one point and Bradley would finish with only 33 minutes in the series.
3. Jae Crowder – When analyzing Crowder’s season, there are two sets of data that need to be examined: pre high ankle sprain, and post. Here are the splits:
Pre–66 games. 34.5% from three (4th on the team) 14.2 points per game (3rd on team)
Post–13 games. 24.0% from three (19/79) 11.2 points per game
Now I am not saying Jae was still hurt during that series, I have no way of knowing. What I can say with certainty is that he never returned to the impact player he was before his lower body injury, for whatever reason. If you think he magically forgot how to shoot then I am not sure what to tell you.
If you cannot see the huge impact that these players had by missing the series or playing injured, you simply don’t want to admit it, for whatever reason. If you want to dismiss the fact that Brad Stevens has taken them from 25 to 40 to 48 wins without any superstars that is your right. If you want to dismiss the fact that Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Kelly Olynyk all coincidently had their best individual years last season that is your right. If you want to dismiss legitimate big boy wins At Oklahoma City, at Cleveland, at home versus the Clippers and at Golden State that is your right. If you want to write off the fact they were one of the toughest outs on a night in night out basis that is your right.
However, I would caution you against doing that. It is easy to dismiss a season’s worth of growth over the outcome of one series. It is also easy to forget that this was the one of the youngest teams in the league this year. Given their age and experience level, there is no reason to think they won’t continue to improve individually and as a unit. Their system is intact. Their identity is built. They will add talent this offseason and when healthy, the sky is will be the limit for their success.