The Celtics are banking on basketball amnesty and basketball amnesia in the NBA postseason.
This baffling, underperforming edition of the Celtics, a team that over 82 games was far less than the totality of its talent, wants you to forget about a regular season gone off the rails. They know that if they pull it together Patriots-style in the playoffs they’ll be absolved of their regular-season sins. If you played the way the Celtics did you would be eager to run from regular-season mediocrity and responsibility and hit the reset button on a sideways season, too. Their attitude is a nod to necessity, not honesty.
For months, the Celtics, led by mercurial franchise frontman Kyrie Irving, have pointed toward the playoffs, promising that the postseason will be different than their disjointed and disharmonious 49-win regular season. It’s put up or shut up time on the parquet. The fourth-seeded Celtics open their best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday at TD Garden.
Like elections, regular seasons have consequences, though. As much as the Celtics prattle on about a clean slate, the reality is that their playoff path was determined by their disappointing regular-season performance. The first round is likely the only round in which the Celtics will enjoy home-court advantage in their race for Eastern Conference eminence with the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers.
The good news is that Boston couldn’t have drawn a more perfect first-round playoff opponent than the Pacers. Indiana is an ideal foil and exactly what the Celtics need if they’re going to apply themselves for a playoff run that reaches the NBA’s final four.
The gritty Pacers, who persevered in impressive fashion to make the playoffs after All-Star Victor Oladipo was lost for the season in January with a ruptured quadriceps tendon, have all the qualities the Celtics lack — togetherness, resolve, gestalt, sacrifice, and a clear embrace of player roles and team identity. Celtics coach Brad Stevens can point to the Pacers to show his group what a connected, cohesive team looks like, to preach what’s needed for the Celtics to fulfill their potential.
Indiana provides great teaching points for the Celtics, but they don’t have the talent to really threaten the Green. The Pacers went 16-19 in Oladipo’s absence to finish 48-34. Even without their basketball conscience in guard Marcus Smart, who is expected to miss the first two rounds with an oblique injury, the Celtics possess superior talent and margin for error. The Celtics beat the Pacers in two playoff-like games late in the regular season to secure the No. 4 seed.
Without Oladipo, the offensively-challenged Pacers simply don’t have enough shot-makers and shot-creators — the players who rule NBA play this time of year — to keep up. Reggie Miller or Paul George isn’t walking through that door for Indiana.
After Oladipo’s injury on Jan. 23, the Pacers averaged 106.7 points per game in their final 35 contests, ranking 28th out of 30 teams in points per game during that time. Meanwhile, the Celtics are armed with one of the league’s most brilliant shot-makers and postseason assassins in Irving, plus a shot-creator that has Stevens’s implicit trust in Gordon Hayward.
The hard-nosed Hoosier State hoopsters finished first in the NBA in points allowed per game at 104.7. They are a dedicated and disciplined defensive team, another attribute Stevens would like his own team to imitate. The only way the Pacers can win this series is to turn it into a rock fight, providing exactly the type of mental and physical challenge the Celtics need to coalesce.
They didn’t earn such favor, but the Basketball Gods have smiled upon the Celtics with the Pacers as their playoff warm-up act.
Of course, this postseason is about far more than defeating the Pacers. It’s a failure if the Celtics don’t at least reach the Eastern Conference finals, which they’ve done each of the last two seasons and accomplished last year with both Irving and Hayward hors de hoops. As Irving stated after a particularly disheartening loss to the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 23, the Celtics should prevail in the playoffs because he’s here.
“In the playoffs, when we can plan for a team, prepare for a team, I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games,” proclaimed Irving that night.
The Celtics have adopted the personality of their leader, Irving. They’re inscrutable and unpredictable, vacillating between open defiance and being easily dismayed. One of the great mysteries of a bewildering season is why Irving’s individual excellence hasn’t translated to more team success. Why has a Celtics team that built its reputation on exceeding its talent level played so far below it with the most talented team of the Stevens era? The season has felt like a tug of war between Irving and Stevens for the ethos of the team.
But the Celtics intend to leave all of that and the regular season behind.
“It’s a whole new time now,” said guard Terry Rozier. “I’m super ready, letting go of everything that happened this whole season and just moving on. I’ll be ready. I can’t wait until the playoffs start.”
Everyone is buying into — and selling — the flip-the-switch mantra to mask an eminently disappointing season, including president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Danny the Dealer drew a dubious parallel between this team and the 2009-10 Celtics, who were also the fourth seed after an underwhelming regular season and reached the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The difference is that was a wizened Celtics team with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen that already had a banner to its name. They were proven winners. That team was coasting, going 27-27 to finish the regular season, to conserve energy.
The current Celtics weren’t coasting. They were struggling to coalesce, and we all saw it.
The postseason has been hailed as a panacea for the Celtics. Now, it’s here.
A lot of wasted words have been expended upon and uttered by this team. We’re finally going to find out if the Celtics can keep their promises and live up to their promise. No more excuses.