BOSTON -- If there’s anything we’ve learned from watching the Boston Celtics this season, as they’ve adroitly navigated the perils of rebuilding while simultaneously claiming the one seed in the Eastern Conference and landing the top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, it’s that the future in Boston is bright, perhaps blindingly so.
But there is a present to be reckoned with as well, and at the cusp of the Celtics’ immediate future awaits another game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are currently creating a bottleneck for anyone looking to win the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Making it to the conference finals is a terrific accomplishment, particularly for a team in the midst of a rebuild. But the Celtics aren’t looking for moral victories.
“We're not just happy to be here,” Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas said on Thursday at Celtics’ practice. “Like, we want to win this series, and that's what we're trying to do. We want to let everybody in this world know that we're for real, and we're one of the top teams in the NBA, and with this series we've got to go out and show the world because like everybody knows, everybody is counting us out, and we've been there before, though, so it's nothing new for us.”
The Celtics managed to snag the top spot in the Eastern Conference by finishing the regular season with a Conference-best 53-29 record, but getting further than the conference finals will require negotiating some way around, over or through a Cleveland team that has clearly been saving a top gear for the postseason, as they’ve gone 9-0 thus far. After losing Game 1 to the Cavs 117-104, the Celtics returned to their practice lab on Thursday looking for answers to a riddle that has vexed many around the NBA over the last decade and a half: Just how does a team dethrone King James in a seven game series?
James finished Game 1 with 38 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. When presented with single coverage, James drove to the basket and either scored or drew a foul. When the Celtics sent multiple defenders, James responded by taking on double-teams and finding teammates spotting up around the three-point line.
“Once you take up space and [James] beats you by a step,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “he sprays it to a wide-open shooter. I think there are a lot of things that I think sound good in theory. I just think we have to do our best to mix it up appropriately without overdoing it, and make sure that we try our best to keep him in front. Obviously, if we want to keep him in front, we don't want him shooting layups -- like probably you're thinking Jae [Crowder] with the downhill drives. We had a few that I thought he made great shots where we actually guarded him pretty well. But at the end of the day, that's all easier said and done. We just have to make it as difficult as possible as a group.”
“We're not just happy to be here. We want to let everybody in this world know that we're for real."
“It has to be a five-man effort,” said Celtics forward Jae Crowder, who drew James as an individual defender several times. “There's not really one guy that can do that. At the same time, you have to do a good job with showing it early. You can't wait until he gets in the paint and then try to build a wall. You've got to do it early. It'll be a challenge for us, but I feel like we're going to switch it up a little bit and have a different game plan and bounce back.”
“You have to realize that they're outstanding,” Stevens added. “They put you in a bad matchup almost every time down the floor, and they're great at it. LeBron is great at finding the matchup he wants. He's great at recognizing when Love has the matchup that they want. He's great at recognizing Irving or bringing a screener up that they want to bring up. That's what makes it really difficult. You're always accounting for all those shooters on the floor, and yet there is a real ability of that team to pick you apart in isolation.”
Celtics rookie forward Jaylen Brown was one of the bright spots for Boston in Game 1, coming off the bench and posting a plus-4 rating and adding 10 points in 19 minutes of play. While Brown allows “it’s kind of crazy” that he’s in the Eastern Conference finals just two years removed from being in high school, Brown notes that the Celtics need to rally a team effort in Game 2.
“We've got to help each other,” said Brown. “We've got to have each other's backs a little bit more. He got to the paint, and I think he wanted to establish himself in the paint. We've got to do a better job of letting him see people in there and having more help defense. He's a good player, but we've got to come out and make it more tough than we did last game.”
“Great players in this league -- and LeBron is the best,” said Stevens, “make really tough plays that you have to tip your hat and move on. We said that as we went through both series, with [Jimmy] Butler and the guards with Washington. There are going to be moments where you play great defense and they make you pay. LeBron is not the only one on this team that does that; Love is tremendous, Irving is tremendous at that. Ultimately, you've got to do as well as you can. But when you review the tape on those things, those don't feel like the things that get you. Things that get you are the rebounds and the run-outs and all those other things because your margin of error is smaller against a team of this caliber.”
With an eye on the future but two feet set in the present, these Celtics enter Friday night’s Game 2 (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) looking to show that they’re not just a pit stop along the way for a Cavs team inexorably barreling toward a third-straight trip to the NBA Finals. The Celtics may be a work in progress, but as they proved in the regular season, that doesn’t mean they can’t be in win-now mode as well.
“We don't get too caught up in what happened or what the future looks like,” said Stevens. “We've got to do our best to play well tomorrow. Our guys are really good about staying in that moment. I didn't think we played great last night, but I think Cleveland had more to do with that. We just have to play better.”
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