I was wrong. W-R-O-N-G!
As many in the sports scribbling and babbling business did, I wrote off the Boston Celtics as an NBA championship threat when All-Star Kyrie Irving checked out in March for the rest of the season with an infection in his surgically repaired left knee. His loss, coupled with the season-ending ankle injury to Gordon Hayward on opening night, was too much for this young, untested team.
My exact words written a little more than a month ago: “Irving’s departure dooms whatever hopes the Celtics had of making a run to the NBA Finals this season.”
So here we are in mid-May, and the Celtics are still playing. Still playing? How about three victories from the NBA Finals? How about going for a 2-0 advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals Tuesday night against Lebron You-Know-Who after that 108-83 blowout Sunday afternoon?
Who predicted this? No one.
The Celtics have to be the story of this NBA post-season. They eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games and then stunned their old rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, in five. Those were the same Sixers who finished the regular season on a 16-0 tear and had won 20 of 21 games before meeting the Celtics.
How has Boston done it? The answer illustrates one of the truisms of sport. Hard work and trust in one another can pay off. Absent their two stars, the Celtics turned to veterans Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes for leadership, youngsters Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart for youthful exuberance, and everyone else on the roster for support when needed. Their response has been beautiful. Every Celtic understands his role and displays maximum effort in pursuing the team goal. They delight in each other’s success. They don’t care who scores as long as they win. They relish playing defense.
Take the box score from the Game 1 romp. Morris, a surprise starter, 21 points, Horford 20, Brown 23, Tatum 16. Morris 10 rebounds, Brown 8, Baynes 8, Tatum 6, Rozier 6. How is that for balance?
And LeBron You-Know-Who? 15 points, 7 rebounds. Morris held him to 5 points while covering him.
Brad Stevens, the engineer driving this train toward the next station, Game 2 at TD Garden, deserves all the credit coming his way. His players have bought into his schemes, strategies and poise. I can’t remember the last time I have heard and read of players praising their coach as often as these Celtics do Stevens. And it’s sincere.
Happy to admit I was wrong about the Celtics chances, I will continue to enjoy this unexpected post-season ride, as should you. But let’s not forget that two series do not a championship make and that one game does not a series make. A history lesson: On May 27, 1985, the Celtics blew out the Lakers, 148-114, at rocking and rolling Boston Garden in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The Memorial Day Massacre, we called it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 12 points and grabbed only five rebounds. Embarrassed, the aging, goggled Laker came back and played like the Hall of Famer he is. LA won the title in six games, the clincher coming on the parquet in Boston, 13 days after the Memorial Day Massacre. Abdul-Jabbar, 38 years old that spring, was the Finals MVP.