There is a thought that the Celtics have hit their basketball ceiling this season.
Beat the Wizards to punch your ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals, and then hope LeBron James and the Cavs have at least some mercy on your souls . . . the pundits are saying. But you won’t find anybody within the Celtics organization feeling that way, even if it does feel like a longshot.
As of Wednesday, the Cavs were favored at -550 to win the series, according to the online sports gambling website Bovada.
So will the King of the Eastern Conference have his way with the Celtics, led by the King of the Fourth?
Not if the Celtics play the way they did in the late third and majority of the fourth quarter against the Wizards. Isaiah Thomas hit his big shots everybody is accustomed to seeing, and role players Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, and rookie Jaylen Brown stepped it up in major ways.
Olynyk looked unconscious out there, hitting 10 of 14 shots on his way to 26 points – 14 of which came in the fourth. Smart hit two “no-no-no-yes!” three’s that really got the C’s moving (and he also finished tied a team-high plus-14), while Brown played 20 minutes of turnover-free basketball.
So can this team prove everybody wrong against the defending Eastern Conference champs? We’ll get our first taste tonight at the TD Garden (8:30 p.m., TNT).
It starts with LeBron
Listen, if there was an answer to the LeBron James question, he wouldn’t be looking to clinch his seventh – yes, seventh – straight NBA Finals appearance. The Celtics are going to try as they might, but stopping James is a pipe dream. Slowing him? That’s possible. But Paul Pierce isn’t walking through that door, folks. It will take a group effort. Jae Crowder has looked a step or two behind at points in the postseason, and he can’t be tasked with guarding James from start to finish. Enter Smart and Brown. If you had to pick a “weak” spot in James’ game, you’d point to his jump shooting, historically speaking. Get up under him and force him into a long range shot. If he drives? Foul, foul foul. It may not be pretty, but James was a career-low 67-percent from the line in the regular season. No easy baskets.
But it doesn’t end with LeBron
Yes, James put the team on his back against the Warriors last postseason. But please do not forget the insanely clutch shots from Kyrie Irving, arguably the second best player in the Eastern Conference. We already know that Irving and Avery Bradley are going to toe-to-toe in this series. Bradley came up huge offensively for Boston at times, but his priority is going to be to limit Irving the way first team all-defense players do. With so much focus on James, the Celtics are really counting on Bradley. The Wizards rode John Wall and Bradley Beal to a Game 7. If Irving has similar success, it’s going to spell doom for the Celtics because James and Kevin Love are going to contribute in ways Wizards forwards didn’t.
Act like you’ve been there
Easy for the Cavs to say. Their roster is made up of plenty of players who have been there and done that. But the Celtics? Not so much. This is all new to their best players. If the C’s want a chance in this series, they can’t just be happy to be there – or too excited to be there. The Celtics only turned the ball over eight times in Game 7, compared to 15 for the Wizards. Were they amped up? Yes. But they didn’t let it affect them negatively. Every possession will count even more against the Cavs. “We got to get ready for the defending champs and we know that,” Thomas said after Monday’s Game 7 win. “We know it’s going to be tough, but at this point anything can happen and we really believe it.”