BOSTON — The Boston Celtics entered the playoffs as what some pundits dubbed “the worst No. 1 seed in NBA history.” When they fell into an 0-2 hole against the Chicago Bulls, even more folks predicted a first-round sweep, describing the eighth seed as “just better” and calling the C’s “victims of their own regular-season success.” Even after Boston won the next four games to advance to the second round, ex-Celtic Rajon Rondo maintained that his Bulls would’ve swept his former team had he remained healthy.
When the Washington Wizards evened the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics after four games, the Washington Post called it “the most lopsided 2-2 playoff series ever.” The columnist went on to declare, “There’s not enough caution in this nervous world to deny the evidence through four games of this Eastern Conference semifinal matchup: The Wizards are flat-out better than the Boston Celtics.”
It was then that former Celtics star Paul Pierce warned Isaiah Thomas, “Winning is hard. You gotta take your bumps and bruises as they go. But if winning wasn’t hard, it would be [for] everybody.” So when the fourth-seeded Wizards forced a Game 7 in Boston, Thomas studied Pierce’s epic Game 7 battle against LeBron James in the 2008 Eastern Conference semis.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy at all, and we came out on top,” Thomas said. “That says a lot about the team we are, and we believe in each other.”
True to form, even after Thomas dropped 29 points and 12 assists in the 115-105 Game 7 win to eliminate Washington, Wizards guard Bradley Beal still contended, “We feel like we were the better team.”
So, Boston enters the conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers as heavy underdogs, per Las Vegas and every prognosticator on the planet, despite having home-court advantage. You’ll be shocked to learn Stephen A. Smith said from TD Garden immediately after the C’s advanced to face the Cavs, “I can’t see this series going past five, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they got swept.”
It seems ridiculous to think a No. 1 seed could ever use the “nobody believes in us” mantra, but in this case, it’s true. Absolutely no one gives Boston a chance against Cleveland. Except, of course, for Boston.
“They didn’t give us a chance in this series,” Thomas said following the Game 7 victory. “They didn’t give us a chance when we were down 2-0 to Chicago. We got the No. 1 seed, they didn’t give us a chance. They don’t ever give us a chance. We just keep going. We don’t care about what others say.”
The Celtics played the Cavs tough in three of their four meetings this season, winning once in Boston. But everybody harkens back to the 2015 playoffs, when Cleveland ran the C’s off the floor in a first-round sweep.
“We were lucky to even be in the playoffs,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of that series.
But this is a different Boston team. That version had just swung midseason trades for Thomas and Jae Crowder, and were still bringing both off the bench. This one has added Al Horford — one of this year’s most efficient playoff performers — and watched Thomas become a bona fide MVP candidate worthy of a Second Team All-NBA nod, while everyone on the roster has improved along with him.
“Nobody thought we would be here this fast, especially when I got traded here,” said Thomas, now a two-time All-Star. “I don’t think anybody was thinking that in a couple years we’d be in the Eastern Conference finals, but the players on this team, from the first guy to the last, we believe in each other. We never give up, and we feel like we’re just as good as any team in the NBA. And we feel like we’ve got more work to do. Even though the world is counting us out, we’re going to keep going regardless.”
Boston shouldn’t be here, not with a 5-foot-9 former 60th overall pick steering the ship. But neither team nor player has gotten this far by waiting to find out if the naysayers were right all along.
That isn’t to say the task at hand isn’t incredibly difficult. James is the best basketball player alive, with a history of destroying even the most championship-hearty of Celtics teams in the conference finals. He’s got a pair of All-Star teammates and a bevy of sharpshooters in tow, and they will arrive in Boston on nine days rest, just 48 hours after the C’s went the distance with Washington.
“I think they’re better than any of the four times we played them, including the last one when they smashed us, so we’re going to have to play really well,” said Stevens, who has run his playoff record to 10-13 after a 2-10 start to his NBA postseason career. “So, as we go into tomorrow, the most important thing the coaches can do … is make it as simple as possible in a short turnaround, which is easier said than done against these guys. But what a special opportunity, to get a chance to compete against them.”
Asked if he’d like more time to prepare, though, Stevens didn’t hesitate: “I’ve seen them play before.”
The C’s may not be as talented as the Cavs, but if we’ve learned anything from these playoffs, no team is as mentally tough as this one led by Thomas. Pierce wasn’t kidding when he told Thomas winning is hard, but nobody’s had it as hard as the Celtics point guard. He lost his little sister on the eve of the playoffs, returning home to grieve with his family and deliver the eulogy at her funeral between games against the Bulls, and then literally got his teeth knocked out to start the second round. After Monday’s Game 7 victory, Stevens even indicated that Thomas could be dealing with more injuries.
“Man, is he a tough guy,” the fourth-year Celtics coach said. “He’s dealing with more stuff physically, and obviously going through what we went through at the start of the playoffs, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Asked what ailed him now, Thomas simply said, “My whole body.” He added, “I’m hurting, but there’s no excuses. It’s the playoffs.” And the rest of these C’s take their cue from their diminutive leader.
“Obviously, these guys out here can do things physically that most people can’t do,” said Stevens. “But the resolve and the ability to compartmentalize and perform on that stage that way — that’s another very, very rare skill-set, I think. Hats off to all of them, and Isaiah certainly is special in that regard.”
Is there any reason to believe Thomas and company can catch fire and capitalize on a rusty Cavs team coming to Boston, as the San Antonio Spurs did through a few quarters against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, to steal the opener and knock the reigning champs on their heels in this series? If there is, you won’t hear it from many people outside the Celtics locker room.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Thomas. “But at this point, anything can happen. We really believe that.”
You could make the case the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive teams after the All-Star break, and the Celtics have closed the gap with the addition of Horford, but nobody beyond Boston’s borders believes the No. 1 seed can win four games out of seven against LeBron.
None of that will stop the C’s from believing, while wins may come the hard way, no one is harder than them. Everyone from Bulls star Jimmy Butler to Wizards reserve Kelly Oubre wondered aloud whether a team that relies so heavily on role players like Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart could really be “about that life,” but those two are still standing after punching their team’s ticket to the conference finals.
So long as there’s a game left on the schedule, these Celtics will fight, quite literally, tooth and nail.
“The bottom line is there’s always tomorrow,” added Stevens. “We just focus on tomorrow.”
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