The old-fashioned Celtics
The difference between the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets is that the Nets have the bigger stars but the Celtics have the better team.
It's not that the Celtics don't have star players on their roster; they do. They have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, whose reputations for excellence seem to grow with each game; it's just that their star power is not on the level of Kevin Durant's or Kyrie Irving's -- and it won't be until they win a championship. That day might not be far off.
The Celtics are playing together as a single unit, and it's paying off, much to the frustration of Durant and Irving. Those have been covered closely and are being denied the ball; the instant that they do get it, they are swarmed by two or three defenders, making it extremely difficult to get off a shot, let alone pass off to an open man.
The men in green are like a pack of hyenas when guarding Durant and Irving. Singly they are no match for Brooklyn's Big Two but working together they will overcome any individual weakness. A pack of hyenas can overwhelm even the strongest lion if they are relentless enough. The lion can hold them at bay for a while, sometimes even a long while, but eventually the pack will wear him down and when they do the hyenas will swarm him and kill him with a thousand bites.
Take, for example, Game Two of the Celtics-Nets playoff series. Durant, who has been in the NBA since before the last time Boston won the championship, which seems like a long time ago (it was a long time ago), led all scorers with 27 points, but the majority of them were from the free throw line (18 of 20). He was only four for 17 from the field and one for two from three-point distance. That's a trade-off anyone would take. Kyrie Irving, who nearly stole Game One with his spectacular shooting, was denied the ball even more than Durant; he was just four for 13 from the field (zero for one from three pointland) and held to a total of only 10 points.
At the other end of the floor, Boston's team approach was just as dramatic; of the eight players coach Ime Udoka used, seven of them were in double figures. Only Derrick White, who is usually in the double-digit category, failed to score at least 10 because he took only two shots from the field. The Celtics got off to a terrible start in Game Two, Brooklyn scored the game's first nine points and led at halftime by 10. The second half was a totally different story, though. The Celtics clawed their way back and took the lead for the first time at the end of the third period. They were in command throughout the fourth quarter and the final score of 114 to 107 was not as close as it would appear.
The game was reminiscent of the great dynasty years of the old Celtics of six decades ago when Bill Russell would pull down a rebound and fling the ball to a prearranged spot on the floor where he knew Bob Cousy would be. Cooz would then lead the team on their patented fast break. When he got to the top of the key, Cousy had the following options: he could hit Tommy Heinsohn, racing by on his wing, with a no-look pass; dish off to Bill Sharman, his sharp shooting fellow guard (later succeeded by Sam Jones); hand off to Russell, barreling up court ahead of his defender; or keep the ball and either take the shot himself or, if he saw an opening, penetrate to the basket. It was the definition of poetry in motion, it involved the whole team. And it resulted, year after year, in another Celtic championship.
Game Three was much the same as Game Two, except that the Celtics didn't have to dig their way out of a deep first half deficit, Brooklyn remained competitive for the first half of Game Three, but after the intermission, the hyenas asserted control and then it was just a matter of time. Durant and Irving scored just 16 points each, nowhere near what Tatum and Brown accomplished (39 and 23 respectively). It should also be noted that Tatum was the primary defender against Durant, thereby establishing his credentials as a complete player with whom opponents will have to deal for years to come.
A large share of the credit for the dramatic turnaround of the Celtics this year should go to the coach, Ime Udoka. He has everyone pulling in the same direction and contributing. Last year, former coach Brad Stevens was unable to do that, and it showed. The results were mediocre at best. Last off-season when the Celtics reshuffled the organization and moved Stevens to the front office, I thought it smacked of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; but it turned out to be the perfect move. He knows the team's personnel and his moves have strengthened it.
Whoever the Celtics face next is going to have serious problems on their hands.
Basketball has evolved into an international sport since the days of Russell, Cousy, et al., and there are many more teams in the NBA to contend with, so winning the title is more difficult than ever, but the Celtics seem content with trying to do it the old-fashioned way, with teamwork. So far, so good.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.