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by: John Tomase on Fri, 04/21/2017 - 10:58am
Disclosure: I've been all over the map when it comes to Celtics-Bulls.
"Celtics in five!" I wrote before the series.
"Celtics in trouble!" I wrote after Game 1.
Well, prepare for another flip-flop, because I firmly believe the Celtics can figure things out against what's basically a middling team and win this series, even as it shifts to Chicago for Game 3 on Friday night with the Bulls holding a commanding 2-0 lead.
For all of the talk about the Celtics' wayward offense, struggles on the glass, and discombobulated defense, the series thus far can basically be summed up in one word: tight.
The Celtics are playing like a coiled spring while the Bulls joyously bounce around the court on pogo sticks. The Celtics are clearly feeling the weight of expectations after improbably earning the East's top seed. The Bulls are the team with nothing to lose and it shows, as unheralded reserves like draft bust Bobby Portis and German no-name Paul Zipser knock down open shots. The Celtics bench, meanwhile, has laid enough brick to build a firehouse.
In an interview with the Boston Herald on Friday, Celtics boss Danny Ainge reflected on his own experience with the 1993 Phoenix Suns, who won 62 games as the No. 1 seed in the West, and then immediately dropped the first two at home to the eighth-seeded Lakers.
They rallied to win the final three -- with Ainge making 6-of-9 3-pointers as a key reserve -- before rolling into the NBA Finals, where they lost to Michael Jordan's Bulls in six games.
"I remember that the Lakers had James Worthy and Byron Scott," Ainge told the Herald's Steve Bulpett. "They had guys that were used to winning — not unlike the situation we're facing right now. The Bulls have Dwyane Wade and [Rajon Rondo], guys who've won championships and know how to play at this time of the year. And Jimmy Butler is a star.
"But when I look back to our Suns team, we had really good players. We had Charles [Barkley] and KJ [Kevin Johnson] and Dan Majerle. But we had a lot of expectation on us, and I just remember that we were playing tight. We were not playing loose.
"Then at halftime of Game 3, it was a close game and we were on the verge of elimination because it was a five-game series. This is after losing the two at home. Then [Suns coach] Paul Westphal walks in and says, 'Does anybody have any good jokes?' So then for the next 10 minutes, we just told jokes. Then we went out, got that game, took Game 4 and went back to Phoenix, won that one and ended up going to the Finals."
This Celtics team is not built to reach the Finals. It's not built to emerge from the Eastern Conference. Realistically, it's not even built to survive whomever it gets in the second round.
But it is certainly good enough to beat the eighth-seeded Bulls, a team that nearly blew it up at the trade deadline, was plagued by infighting during much of the season, and is led by a pair of aging vets in Rondo and Wade who are winning on guile.
[UPDATE (11:20 a.m.): The Bulls just announced that Rondo is out indefinitely with a broken thumb, which means the Celtics will have one fewer experienced star to deal with. While this makes their task easier, it doesn't change the fact that they've got to loosen up. Maybe this will help.]
The Bulls are eminently beatable, but only if the Celtics can figure out how to take the floor without treating each possession like the waning seconds of a Game 7 needing two to tie and three to win.
Fortunately, if there's one trait we'd ascribe to this squad since it first reached the playoffs under Brad Stevens two years ago -- yes, it was only two years ago -- it's resilience. That's a hallmark of Stevens-coached teams dating back to his days at Butler.
Within a game, that means never being down and out, even if the fourth quarter deficit swells to double digits. Within a season, it means shrugging off injuries or an inferior talent base to keep upping its win totals, from 25 to 40 to 48 to 53.
And within this series, it means letting go of whatever mentally held it back in Games 1 and 2. It won't be easy, because the Celtics haven't looked the same since the No. 1 seed came into play over the final 10 days of the season, which is about the time they started pulling the chain on jump shots and front-rimming every other 3-point attempt.
But it can be done.
That means Jae Crowder starts diving to the hoop again, as he did for the very first points of the season on opening night against Brooklyn. It means reserve Kelly Olynyk effectively splits his time making open threes and scoring backdoor on smaller defenders. It means energetic guard Marcus Smart stops flipping off fans and starts focusing his considerable physical talents on locking down whomever he's guarding.
It means the Celtics embrace the fact that they're officially underdogs again, which seems to bring out their best, and play with the reckless abandon that produced wins over both Cleveland and Golden State during the regular season.
It means stop playing so damn tight. The season hangs in the balance, and all flip-flopping aside, I can't shake the feeling the Celtics have one last surprise for us.