The Celtics are showing that quirky teams can be great

29 days ago

DALLAS — The frustrating, unreliable Boston Celtics are one more oddball performance from getting exactly what they deserve — a championship. Their strange dominance is dominance nonetheless. Put aside skepticism over their mercurial style, and you see a statistical wonder on the verge of a cozy place in history.

It doesn’t seem like these Celtics belong in the company of the NBA’s greatest teams, but if they sweep the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night, they will force you to consider them worthy. They are 15-2 this postseason. They have won 10 straight playoff games. They haven’t lost since May 9. They haven’t lost a game on the road.

If the Celtics win the NBA Finals and finish their championship run with a 16-2 record, their .889 playoff winning percentage would rank fifth all-time. The Golden State Warriors, who went 16-1 in the 2017 playoffs, would be the only team to win a title in fewer games since the NBA stretched the postseason to four rounds of best-of-seven series in 2003.

Add their 64-18 regular season mark, and their next win would be No. 80 this season. Only 13 teams have done that. A sweep would put the Celtics at 80-20, matching the 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers, the most dominant team of the Showtime era. The Celtics would be just the eighth team to win a title with at least 80 combined wins and a .800 winning percentage.

They don’t just look good on paper. They look like they should be in bronze. They have won at the rate of the immortals and done so with record-setting offensive efficiency and a top five all-time scoring differential.

So why are we so hard on them?

Before the Finals, I joked I wouldn’t trust the Celtics even if they were up 3-0 in the series and ahead by 15 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4. Now, that scenario might happen. Well, perhaps I was a bit too dramatic.

I’d trust them with a 14-point cushion now.

Soon, we might look back at criticism of the Celtics and consider it all silly. They look a long path to get to this final turn, making deep playoff runs in six of the last eight seasons, continuing to fall short, learning after every disappointment. Because the current team is a streaky, three-point-chucking group with a 35-year-old head coach who loves to experiment, they’re viewed as confounding. But with Joe Mazzulla strategizing from the sideline, the Celtics have opted for a growth mind-set over fixation on the pressure to deliver championship No. 18 to Boston.

“Experience is the best teacher,” all-star forward Jayson Tatum said. “We learned from our mistakes.”

Tatum referenced the 2022 Finals loss to the Warriors. The Celtics were ahead 2-1 in the series and seemed in good position to take a commanding lead at home in Game 4, but Stephen Curry scored 43 points at TD Garden that night. And over the course of the series, the Warriors taught the Celtics a lesson about moxie and grit. Golden State won in six games, capturing its fourth title under Coach Steve Kerr.

“We learned from a team at the time that was better than us, that had been there and been over that hump and [were] mentally tougher at the time,” Tatum said. “We’ve grown from that, we really have.”

He cited a wild Game 3 as evidence. The Celtics trailed by 13 early, played an otherworldly third quarter and led by as many as 21 points in the fourth before Dallas went on a 22-2 run. But on the road, with the American Airlines Center crowd throbbing with intensity, Boston didn’t collapse. The players recovered in a 106-99 victory. It seems like they always recover now.

“So you just have to constantly problem-solve throughout the game,” Mazzulla said. “You have to ask yourself why every single possession. Why did that happen? Why did this happen? Was this what we talked about? Was it not? And the guys, they fight for that because of their basketball IQ. They spend a lot of time understanding that. And that’s part of the game. And once we answer those questions, we can move on to the next phase of the game.”

Mazzulla is no longer the young coach thrust into a difficult situation after the Ime Udoka scandal. Since he took over last season, he hasn’t been trying to hold onto a job or a way of doing things. He has been building his own thing, blending the Celtics’ style of play with his basketball philosophies. It’s clear now the team is winning because of him. His eccentricities have gone from worrisome to fascinating. It’s still strange to watch a team with Boston’s size and versatility take 46 of its 82 shots from three-point range. But the Celtics’ offensive approach is more refined than it looks. For a team that lacks an elite floor general to diagnose defenses and facilitate the offense, the system does a lot of the work with simple reads and a distinct style.

“It’s all about taking the right shots,” Mazzulla said. “It’s all about taking what the defense gives you. They are playing a unique defense against us because they are one of the best teams in the league at protecting the rim, and they have two great rim protectors. So if you try to become stubborn, you put yourself in a disadvantaged situation at the other end of the floor.

“Our defense starts with our offense. And so if we don’t take the right shot, we can’t guard them. And our team has the discipline to fight for the spacing and to fight to take the right shot, whatever that shot may be.”

We’re so focused on how the Celtics play, but what matters most is that they understand who they are now. Their offense organizes them. Their defense sustains them. Despite some notable offensive lulls this postseason, they’ve played most every game on their terms. In the Finals, their defense has forced Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, the Mavericks’ ball-dominant star guards, to essentially play 2-on-5 basketball. The Celtics have locked down the role players and dared Doncic and Irving to be brilliant. In Game 3, they were both productive. They combined for 62 points. But they had to take 55 of the Mavs’ 86 field goal attempts. On the other end, the Celtics are sharing the ball and attacking mismatches. They’re hunting Doncic, who fouled out with about four minutes remaining.

Boston is a complete team overdue for a parade. Dallas is a team that got hot after adding two new starters at the trade deadline. It’s not a fair fight. The Celtics have graduated to dominance.

Are they one of the best teams we’ve ever seen? In real time, they don’t seem as good as their numbers. But we’ve also been looking at them with a jaundiced eye for the last four years.

History won’t have such a bias. Quirky teams can be great, too.

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