By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
My Dad’s been way into the Denver Nuggets this season. They’re fun. Their top guns – Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic – affect the game in wildly different ways. They have eager role players.
They lost Friday night.
Fun doesn’t win in the NBA. Talent wins; specifically, talent with guts. People still take plenty of shots at LeBron James, but there’s no disputing he co-authored the greatest comeback (from a 3-1 deficit) in NBA Finals history.
It hasn’t been much fun to be a Celtics fan of late. They’re 2-5 in their last seven games. Their defense is inconsistent; their offense regularly resembles what Bill Simmons used to call the “clogged toilet.” They’re getting out-hustled and out-coached. And now, they’re yelling at each other.
Perhaps we were too quick to hand the Eastern Conference crown to the Celtics. After all, they had the ninth-best preseason odds and were expected to be a middling team in the East after losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. But Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown appeared to take the next step, they won a lot more games than we thought they would, and some hoops deity pressure washed their yellow brick road to the Finals when Ben Simmons couldn’t play in the first round and the Bucks got dumped in the second.
But Miami took the Bucks out. They’re coached by a veteran of five NBA Finals (with three rings – two as head coach) in Erik Spoelstra. They’ve got former NBA champs in Andre Iguodala and Udonis Haslem on their bench, and their leaders are hungry.
Jimmy Butler is starved. Nine years ago, the Miami All-Star found himself drafted to a Bulls team that had the reigning MVP and the best record in the league. But his maiden playoff voyage was cut short when Derrick Rose was cut down. Butler bounced to Minnesota, then Philly, irascibly seeking a winning combination. Last year, his season ended on a Kawhi Leonard Game 7 buzzer-beater.
Goran Dragic has plied his trade in the NBA since 2008 (when Jayson Tatum was in fifth grade). Dragic’s sophomore NBA campaign was marked by a trip to the Western Conference Finals, where Kobe Bryant’s Lakers stopped them on the way to a Finals rematch with the Celtics.
Like Butler, Dragic, too, can see the giant tray of dessert coming out of the kitchen, and he’ll tackle that waiter before it goes to another table.
Are the Celtics even ready for dessert? Marcus Smart has made the playoffs in all six of his NBA seasons: Smart, Tatum and Brown were all part of the 2018 magic carpet ride that stalled out against LeBron in Game 7. But none of them are anywhere close to that 30-year old NBA mark when the brick goes through your windshield and you’re suddenly thinking about stealing the dessert.
That mindset spurred Boston to a championship win in 2008. These Celtics are patiently waiting with cloth napkins stuffed into their collars.
As for the veterans, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward combined to win one playoff series before coming to Boston. They’ve never been so close that they could taste it. Boston’s most successful vet – by this metric – is Enes Kanter, who played for an Oklahoma City team that famously fumbled away a 3-1 lead to Golden State in 2016. Four and a half years later, Kanter barely gets more minutes than Haslem.
Just because they haven’t been here before doesn’t mean they can’t win. But killer instinct isn’t something you just find laying around like a nickel on the sidewalk. It’ll be a long road back. Just six teams (out of 58) have ever managed to dig out of an 0-2 hole in the conference finals.
I don’t think the series is over. But things need to turn around, and fast. Perhaps Friday night’s shouting match will galvanize this group to attack the zone, cut down on turnovers, box out on the other end.
Maybe they’ll come out of halftime looking to put a game away, instead of doing whatever it is that has led them to get outscored by a combined 47 points in the third since the beginning of the Toronto series. They’ve “won” the third quarter just once over that span, and have ceded five 30-point third quarters to the opposition, while producing zero of their own.
It could get ugly; it could be uncomfortable. The Heat have embraced the discomfort, and they’ve won 10 of 11 playoff games. Meanwhile, the Celtics are developing a reputation as front runners. The Bucks were front runners. Championship-caliber teams face adversity head-on. We’ve longed for Boston to enter that conversation over the past few seasons and expect them to be there through the next half-decade. At some point, they have to make the leap.
We can have a little fun, too. Whatever aesthetic you prefer out of your NBA team of choice, there’s no arguing that team defense and offensive execution is something to get excited about.
But most of all, winning is fun. The Celtics need to beat the Heat in Game 3. The ball is in their court.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.