In these satisfying hours after the Celtics’ systematic dismantling of the Brooklyn Dynasty That Never Was, I have just two questions about this juggernaut and its very real Banner 18 aspirations:
What did Jaylen Brown know and how did he know it?
The Celtics’ seismic shift from an annoying team that found ways to snatch defeat from near-certain victory to one whose every contributing player is tough, poised, and intent on maximizing not just his own ability but that of those around him will be the stuff of legend if this season ends with the Duck Boats being called into action.
And it might. Man, it might.
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to suggest that the Celtics broke the Nets with a four-game first-round sweep, culminating with a 116-112 clincher Monday night in which the victors never trailed.
The Nets were already suffering from various stress fractures across the organization, mostly due to the legendarily unaccountable Kyrie Irving, a dynamic talent who does not make his teammates better and makes the team culture a whole lot worse.
But a quick epitaph for the loser is this series looks awfully familiar: Kyrie ruins everything.
We already knew that firsthand from his pathetic Quittin’ Time approach to the lethargic playoff loss to the Bucks three years ago, his last act as a Celtic before decamping for Brooklyn and a presumed prefabricated dynasty with his buddy Kevin Durant.
It took three years and an organizational shakeup, but the Celtics that Irving left behind are stronger than he could have imagined when he bailed. So that’s enough words spent on him. That chapter isn’t just closed. It’s removed from the book altogether.
The story now is about this Celtics team’s quest to achieve something that would have seemed like a delusion just three months ago, or right around the time Brown sent out a certain tweet that looks stunningly prophetic now.
“The energy is about to shift,” tweeted Brown at 11:32 a.m. on Jan. 31.
Now, the Celtics already had been playing better, winning 8 of 12 games to improve to 26-25 after their 18-21 start. But they accelerated from there to a level of excellence that none of us could have fathomed. They beat the Heat by 30 points the night of Brown’s tweet, then won 24 of 30 games to close out the regular season, often by double-digit margins.
They solved everything, and Brown’s tweet suggests the players knew it before any of us were aware that it was even a possibility.
It would be silly to call the Nets series the ultimate validation of Brown’s tweet or, really, the culmination of anything, since the possibility of so much more is directly ahead.
No, this series wasn’t a culmination. It was a confirmation.
Confirmation that Jayson Tatum is now an all-around superstar who delights in slaying the basketball heroes like Durant whom he used to defer to.
Confirmation that sharing the basketball and relentless, suffocating defense remains the most aesthetically pleasing path to excellence.
Confirmation that these Celtics, who played the final 2:48 Monday without Tatum after he fouled out on the Scott Foster call of all Scott Foster calls, collectively possess the poise and discipline to prevail in scenarios in which they would have crumbled just a few months back.
That latter point was illustrated by a tidbit of information shared by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton after the game. He noted that the combined margin of victory in the Celtics’ four wins (18 points) made it the third-closest sweep in playoff history, behind only the Warriors’ win over the Bullets in the ‘75 Finals and the Cavaliers’ first-round win over the Pacers in ‘17, both with a 16-point total margin.
Those unfamiliar with this Celtics team might take that to mean that the series was closer than the four-games-to-none outcome indicates. If you watched each game of this series, you know that this is the wrong way to read it.
Perhaps the tenor of the series would have been different had Marcus Smart not found Tatum for that gorgeous spinning layup in Irving’s mug to beat the buzzer in Game 1. But they did have the resolve to make the best play of the game at the most important moment, then in the ensuing three games beat the Nets pretty much every way possible. They rallied from a 17-point deficit in Game 2, took command in the second quarter of Game 3, and never trailed for a second in the clincher.
Sure, the tension heightened and the Brooklyn crowd woke from its slumber when Tatum fouled out in Game 4. But the Celtics did not rattle in his absence, with Jaylen Brown taking over as the primary scorer, Smart leading the chaos on the defensive end and hitting crucial free throws, and Al Horford getting the key putback to put the Celtics up 4 with 13.7 seconds left.
We haven’t even acknowledged Grant Williams, who hit four 3-pointers in Game 4, bodied Durant defensively, and seemed to win the superstar’s respect, or Derrick White, who had 7 points and six rebounds in the first half and spent the second half dishing out clever passes to open shooters.
Really, that’s the biggest difference between the Celtics and the failed so-called Super Team that they just vanquished. The Nets have the type of guys who delight in stepping on an opponent’s logo. The Celtics have the type of guys who step up in the biggest moments, sharing the basketball and in each other’s success.
If you stop to think about it, it’s amazing that they’ve come this far — and reassured us, again and again, that it’s entirely real — in just a few months. So this is what it looks like when the energy shifts.