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The Boston Celtics deserved to celebrate their Eastern Conference championship journey after several years of knocking on the door of the NBA Finals.
But only for a moment.
After enjoying Sunday night’s Game 7 win in Miami, the C’s were quick to shift their energy back into competition mode, setting their focus on the final task at hand.
“It's a step for our group, for guys who have been there and not gotten over that hump,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said Tuesday morning before flying out to San Francisco where the Golden State Warriors await. “You enjoy it, obviously, but we're not hanging a banner here (for becoming Eastern Conference Champions). It's a bigger picture, and I think guys' mindsets have flipped pretty quickly.”
Their mindsets had to flip quickly because they’re about to face a team unlike any that they have seen throughout their playoff run.
The Warriors don’t possess the same level of size and physicality that the Celtics saw against Milwaukee or Miami. Instead, they are a team that thrives on speed and finesse.
“It's a little bit of a change of mindset as far as that,” said Udoka. “We're the bigger team, but they are a really good defensive team as well. They do a lot of great things, it's just in a different manner. And so where we had size playing against Milwaukee, playing against Adebayo (on Miami), guys like that, they don't technically have that same size, but they always have (Draymond) Green back there who's kind of their free safety linebacker kind of controlling the defense.”
It's also a team that is constantly mixing up coverages, so Udoka will be finding himself in a nightly chess match with Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.
“Steve, who I worked with at USA Basketball is very open-minded,” said Udoka. “He’ll go to box-and-one, triangle on two zones and everything else in between to try to keep you off balance.”
Though, the Celtics have also done an excellent job of keeping Golden State off balance of late. Boston had the best average scoring differential (+9.0 PPG) of any Warriors opponent this season thanks in large part to its 110-88 win on March 16 in San Francisco. The C’s also suffered a 111-107 loss to the Warriors at TD Garden, but that was all the way back on Dec. 17 before they turned their season around.
Despite having such elite perimeter players, Golden State has had trouble matching up against Boston’s length and versatility.
“I think that with who we are defensively against a really good offensive team, the benefit is having Marcus (Smart), Jayson (Tatum), Jaylen (Brown) on the perimeter,” said Udoka, “but also, you have bigs that they can’t just pick on, like Rob (Williams), Al (Horford), Grant (Williams). And everybody else that we do use, it’s kind of a perfect storm as far as a matchup with all of the offensive talent they have, the defensive talent we have, and I think our size and versatility bodes well for us as far as that. So I feel confident with a lot of guys guarding different players for them as opposed to other teams whether you look at the Dallas series or others where they were trying to pick on certain people. So we feel comfortable as far as that, and I think that benefits us defensively.”
One advantage that Golden State does have is experience. With six Finals appearances since 2015, this Warriors core understands better than any group what it takes to get to this stage. And with three championships during that span, they also know what it takes to win.
To beat them, it’s going to take poise, discipline, and an unwavering competitive fire – all qualities which Udoka believes his Celtics possess.
“We know what’s in front of us,” said the first-year head coach. “We know what we’re here to play for and I don’t think any of our guys are awed or intimidated by the moment at all. We understand what it is. We know the opponent in front of us. And for us, as always this year, it’s been business as usual. Going on the road, not fazed by that at all. We’re really looking forward to it. Not a lot of anxiousness or nervousness. We have this time that we’ll take advantage of as far as rest and preparation and be ready to go by Game 1.”
The Celtics had their moment to celebrate their East title, but they didn’t come all this way for a conference championship banner.
They came for Banner 18, and it’s only four wins away.