No team outperformed expectations more last year than the Boston Celtics, winning 53 games in the regular season and making their way to the conference finals. What’s more impressive is that they did this while their best player was a five-foot-eight point guard. But, what happened in the playoffs?
After having the Eastern Conference’s best record the Celtics struggled against the eighth seed Bulls, until Rondo went down. The Wizards took them to 7 games in the second round and it took a herculean effort from Kelly Olynyk to win the final game in that series. Then they got absolutely waxed in five games by the Cavs in the Conference Finals, losing by an average of twenty-six points.
But, despite all this history, everyone seems to expect this year’s Boston team is going to give the Cavs a tough time in the playoffs and possibly make the Finals. So, what’s changed? Most notably, Isaiah Thomas is gone and Kyrie Irving is in, which is more of a change in height than anything else. A lot of other changes have happened as well; their two best perimeter defenders, Crowder and Bradley, are gone, and with Olynyk gone they’ve lost the ability to have a backup centre space the floor.
Obviously there have been some additions, Kyrie is having an excellent year, Aron Baynes is helping with some decent rim defence, Jayson Tatum is having a great rookie year, but Gordon Hayward has unfortunately been out all year with that terrible injury. All these additions look amazing so far, they started the season on a mega hot streak, they have the best defence in the league, and they’re doing all that without their max contract player. But, can make it count in the playoffs this year?
In the past two weeks the Celtics have played their two main playoff rivals, the Raptors and the Cavaliers. They lost these matchups by the average of twenty-one points. Against the Raptors they got killed by Kyle Lowry and CJ Miles. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the Celtics best guard defender, Marcus Smart, was out injured. Then in their match with the Cavs they got killed by, who else but, LeBron James. These two games gave some great insight into what to expect from the Celtics in the playoffs.
Against teams like the Raptors, who have two All-Star guards who can score the ball, the Celtics are going to struggle without the terrific on-ball defence of Avery Bradley. Sure they have Marcus Smart, but in a playoff series his poor shooting, 35% from the field and under 30% from three, will play him off the court when teams can just sag off of him on defence. Without Smart on the court teams like Raptors will be able to exploit the weak defence of players like Kyrie and Terry Rozier and have their guards put up easy shots from outside and use any size advantage to get to the rim for great inside looks.
Then, teams like the Cavaliers can make the Celtics hurt in a completely different way. The Celtics defence relies on the idea of “like-size”, this is the idea that the Celtics just have a bunch of guys that are around six and a half feet, have long arms, and quick feet. This means that the Celtics can just switch on every screen, and given the similar sizes of their guys the mismatch won’t be too bad.
Unfortunately this falls apart when you’re playing against a historic, transcendent player like LeBron James. Switching on every screen makes it much easier for LeBron to get any matchup he wants which means he can abuse any players that is too small or too slow to guard him. The Celtics’ best two wing players this year have been Jaylen Brown, who is too small to guard LeBron properly, and Jayson Tatum, and you can’t expect a rookie to guard the best player in the NBA. The lack of players who can guard LeBron in one-on-one coverage means that LeBron will be able to control the floor and get his team whatever looks he wants.
There is also a problem with the offence of ‘system teams’ in the playoffs. The Celtics are having an amazing year, but their offence is produced by beautiful execution of a great offensive system. This works wonders in the regular season, but once you get into the playoffs you need a little something extra. Teams like the Wizards and the Cavs have an ability to step up their game in the post-season. This is made possible because they have amazing athletes who coast through the regular season. Last year we saw this in effect when the eighth seed Bulls, with Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, turned it up and looked like they were going to beat the Celtics in the first round until Rondo went down with a broken hand.
So, while the Celtics’ regular season success is incredibly impressive this year, don’t be surprised if this team can’t flip the switch in the playoffs and struggle to beat team with worse records when the going gets tough. But, without Hayward anything that this team achieves this season is a bonus to take into their next season together.