By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
I don’t want it to be over.
But this series – and a lot of that Raptors series – has me wondering if what we viewed as Boston’s best shot to make the NBA Finals since 2010 was legitimate.
We thought the Celtics were more talented. Jayson Tatum was just selected to the All-NBA third team. Kemba Walker was headed there before knee issues submarined his counting stats during an All-Star campaign. Marcus Smart was first team All-Defense. Jaylen Brown made the jump. Gordon Hayward came back.
But Miami has so thoroughly outplayed Boston that we’re left questioning everything we thought we knew.
Sure, the C’s have lost three games by a combined 11 points. It could easily be 3-1 Boston headed into Game 5. But it isn’t. And then you remember the reasons why: the little things. Turnovers. Bad shots. Lack of communication on defense. The inability to come down with a key rebound. A dismal track record in clutch situations.
We’ve grown to expect so much from Tatum (averaging 26 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists for the series) that his periods of struggle have been jarring. Brown and Walker have had stretches of brilliance, but neither has taken over a game. Meanwhile, Smart might as well get to work on a Jekyll and Hyde Halloween costume right now.
Erik Spoelstra’s been one step ahead of Brad Stevens. When ESPN’s Rachel Nichols interviewed Smart on NBA Countdown before Game 4, she asked what the Celtics would do against Miami’s zone after finding success in Game 3.
His answer was, in effect, “more of the same.” And while Smart’s not going to give away the game plan on national TV, I immediately wondered if his team would be ready for Miami’s adjustments, and not just content to follow the blueprint from the previous game. It certainly didn’t look like it in the first half.
You wonder if Stevens is just stuck with this roster. As Joe Murray lamented on Toucher & Rich Thursday, Danny Ainge didn’t make a move for a veteran at the deadline. While Grant Williams has had his moments, Boston didn’t add an impact player in last year’s draft (while Miami’s pick won them Game 4). Their offense is predictable, not unlike those Jim O’Brien Celtics teams from a number of years back that were consistently outclassed by New Jersey. Miami seems to know where the danger lies and how to minimize it.
Rare is the successful team that sails to a championship. But a 3-1 hole in the Eastern Conference Finals might be a bit much for this bunch. This isn’t the ’81 Celtics. Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door. Cedric Maxwell – while he does broadcast the games – isn’t walking through that door.
We’d love for the current group to walk through and show they’re ready for the big stage. But it’s like somebody entered the nearby AAA branch, printed out the road map, and yet they’re still making wrong turns. One more, and they’re just another 2020 Boston team that fumbled away an opportunity. Commence the second-guessing.
Give credit to Miami. The No. 5 seed in the East knocked out the team with the best record in the NBA, and now they’re primed for another upset and a run at the big trophy. While many anticipate a Lakers win – no matter who the opponent is – and yet another coronation for LeBron James, Miami has been up to the challenge at every stop on their road to the Finals.
Boston has not. And while it’s been done before, the Celtics winning Game 5 on the way to digging out of a 3-1 hole against the Heat is going to require something more than what we’ve seen.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.