Once again, the Boston Celtics are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals. While the Celtics would like to play the “nobody believed in us” card, there were in fact many who thought that they had a great path to make it to the third round of the NBA playoffs. Most, however, had pegged the mighty Milwaukee Bucks, owners of the best regular season record, to be their opponent. Instead, it’s the surprising Miami Heat, straight from their impressive dismantling of Milwaukee, who will be fighting them for the right to make the NBA Finals. Before the postseason, the Celtics would have rather faced their luck with the Heat rather than the Bucks, but that was quite a different team.
It would be tempting to flat-out say that it would be better to face the fifth seed rather than a team that ended the regular season 7.5 games ahead of them in the standings. That would be a mistake, there is absolutely no way the Celtics can overlook a Miami team that has lost exactly one game in the playoffs so far. It turns out that when the coronavirus shut down the league for several months, it also acted as a soft reset of the NBA world. Beyond the effect of the unprecedented hiatus on the sport, playing basketball in the Disney World Bubble has been an entirely unique experience for those involved: there has been no fans, no home court, no travel and no escape. Sure, the Celtics won the season series against the Heat 3-1, but that record is absolutely meaningless right now.
Miami, for whatever reason, has thrived in this environment. Maybe it does have something to do with a culture that values mental toughness. After easily walking past the Indiana Pacers they relished their role as underdogs, exposing every Bucks weakness in what amounted to a five-game gentleman’s sweep. Jimmy Butler is proving all of his doubters wrong with his leadership skills, versatile center Bam Adebayo gives the Heat the edge at big man and sixth man Goran Dragic has been on fire throughout the postseason. This is a troublesome, feisty team who, oh by the way, has now gotten a lot more time to rest than their opponents.
Maybe more than anything else, how the Celtics respond to their beyond-grueling seven-game series against the Toronto Raptors might determine how the Eastern Conference Finals pans out. The Heat have had a full six days to rest while the C’s have merely had three and Boston might have needed the time more. The Celtics had to play their starters heavy minutes in their double-overtime loss in Game 6 as well as their Game 7 victory on Friday. Both Boston and Toronto looked exhausted by the final seconds of their last game, something which was understandable given what a ridiculous defensive battle it all was.
Maybe, as always, it all goes back to the old basketball argument of “rest vs. rust.” Is it better for a team to take to have a long stretch of inactivity in order to prepare and get healthier or does the team that was playing more recently come in more focused and ready to play? This also relates to whether one believes in momentum or not, an eternal debate which we will not relitigate here.
It may be that the entire question is misguided: every postseason situation is different. In the Celtics’ particular situation there are several factors in play: Jaylen Brown injured his groin in Game 7 and while he played through it, he has confessed that he has been feeling lingering effects. Kemba Walker was out of sorts for the second half of the Raptors series and may have been itching for a reset. The Raptors’ defense was as tenacious as they come and it’s fair to second-guess how much the Celtics have left in the proverbial tank. There’s also the question about when Gordon Hayward is slated to return and how recovered he will be from his ankle injury, but that timeline was mostly independent of how long that second-round series would have lasted. The fact that they may have delayed the start of the Eastern Conference Finals by playing the full slate of possible games might have end up actually helping out Boston in that respect.
Maybe Miami does have the edge here for all these factors. There’s another possibility: perhaps the Raptors were already the team who was designed to give the Celtics the biggest amount of headache. As this space has noted on several occasions, the teams were so evenly matched that it was inevitable that it would have been as closely contested as it ended up being. We may have just seen the Eastern Conference Finals already play out and they might be relieved to have moved on to another team, even one as hot as Miami. They’re coming off of their biggest win in the Jayson Tatum Era and—make no mistake—this is definitely Jayson Tatum’s time.
No matter which team ends up being the victor, it would be impossible to hope for a series as dramatic as the one that Boston just played. Whichever team gets an upper-hand early will have a huge advantage here and it may all come down to tonight’s Game 1. There may or may not be such a thing as momentum in playoff basketball, but it might behoove the Celtics to at least believe that they have it right now. Setting the tone early with a decisive win will put them in the driver’s seat.
PREDICTION: Celtics in 6