Celtics win, back on track.
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Celtics win, back on track.

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Game 3 had everything a fan could want: a win, a blowout, and something to believe in moving forward.

We’re so back.

We are not just returning, as that would imply that the Celtics simply won the basketball game. At the very least, I anticipated us to return. If the Celtics had stayed in whatever foreign continent they momentarily inhabited during Game 2, we would have needed a popular referendum or law. But there was another option, one that would see the Celtics triumph with conviction and confidence-boosting pride: coming back. And now that is who we are.

To be so far back indicates that the course has been entirely repaired, and the concerns of the previous 72 hours have been replaced with pure and uncomplicated domination. On Saturday night, the Celtics implemented a zero-tolerance policy for cosmic buffoonery, repeatedly rebuffing the Heat’s attempts to claw their way back into a game that slipped away from them faster than they anticipated. In short, they hammered down on the Game 2 narratives and told them to shut speaking.

In fact, Game 3 was such a convincing blowout that it not only alleviated my anxieties, but also ushered in a fresh sense of excitement for the future. All my concerns that the Celtics may succumb to Miami’s insanity vanished, replaced with a stronger-than-ever belief in this team’s championship potential.

I told you we were so back, didn’t I?

After Wednesday night’s debacle, I was concerned that the Celtics were playing without joy, preoccupied with what might happen if they lost rather than playing freely, a manner that would almost guarantee success. Game 1 featured plenty of joyous basketball, including a parade of threes and Derrick White gazing down the Heat bench after hitting one. Game 2 brought genuine stress, and I was scared the Celtics would crumble once more.

To my astonishment, the Game 3 Celtics did not come out and play with glee, because they had something better in their carry-on luggage: intensity and determination.

Don’t be fooled by LeBron James’ claims about hitting zero dark thirty during the playoffs: athletes pay attention to what the media says about them, and the Celtics undoubtedly felt it every time they were burned over the coals in recent days. There was a lot to work on in Game 2, but the most obvious issue was a complete lack of ball pressure and close outs against open Heat shooters.

Analytics will tell you that this Miami squad launching threes is actually a pretty advantageous game condition for the Celtics, but that’s only true if they aren’t so wide open that it’s almost like a shootout. Furthermore, permitting a conveyor belt of catch-and-shoot threes means Miami almost never has to dribble the ball. Without Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier, this squad only has one player who is comfortable putting the ball on the floor and passing from the point of attack: Tyler Herro. Even he is a little sketchy.

In Game 3, the Celtics’ game strategy focused on blitzing screens and running Heat shooters off the line. No matter what Joe Mazzulla stated, Boston was never going to let the Heat feel comfortable shooting from beyond the arc. Caleb Martin and Jaime Jacquez Jr., the main perpetrators of Game 2, practically abandoned the three-point line entirely, with Martin taking only four attempts and posting a game-low plus/minus of -23.

Everyone was getting in on the party, with all nine Celtics single-mindedly running suicides between the paint and three point line until the Heat simply gave up. The ball pressure was so disruptive that Erik Spoelstra had to yank Duncan Robinson from the rotation after recording a legendary zero points on zero shots in seven minutes. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying; the Celtics just refused him any breathing room.

This game granted me the most glorious gift an NBA team can give their fans: tangible optimism. I’m only 21 years old and generally an upbeat guy, so I’m a terminal optimist anyways, meaning no matter how grim things may look, I usually believe the Celtics are going to figure it out. That’s afforded me exactly zero success in recent years, but I probably enjoyed the doomed series’ more than some others because of my baseless optimism.

But then there’s concrete optimism, in which a team provides their fans with something genuine and physically obvious that convinces them their squad has what it takes. In Game 3, they demonstrated that they still have the defensive skills that propelled them to the NBA Finals two years earlier.

Last year—and in Game 1 of this series—it appeared like the Celtics relied on outscoring their opponents offensively to win playoff games, but lacked the same effort to locking people up as they had in their 2022 Finals appearance. Many linked this to the coaching transition from Ime Udoka to Joe Mazzulla, with the former believing totally in foregrounding each game with defense and the later driven mostly by analytics and winning the mathematical war of each game.

Every oversimplification contains a kernel of truth, but in this case there is only one kernel. Udoka’s Celtics were defensively strong until they faced Jordan Poole and Stephen Curry and were unable to alter their drop coverage, resulting in a blowout. And it’s not like Mazzulla’s analytics-driven attack reduces the defense’s effectiveness. At some point, the guys simply have to lock in and do it.

Furthermore, we must not forget how awful the Celtics’ offense was at scoring throughout that Finals run. Boston was absolutely unable to score in the half court for what felt like weeks at a period, and stopping sprinting in transition left them powerless. Mazzulla Ball, together with the addition of offensive weapon of mass devastation Kristaps Porzingis, has increased it fivefold.

Game 3 demonstrated that defensive dominance is still alive and well, and if the Celtics can find a rhythm and defend consistently, I may have to reconsider my claim that the Denver Nuggets would win if Boston faced them in the Finals. And, despite my best efforts to avoid using this cliché in the prior four paragraphs, the Celtics will need to “hang their hat” on defense in order to compete. I despise the phrase.

When Boston looks bad, everything seems impossible. Drives seem like sprinting through hot tar, screens feel like hitting brick walls, and threes feel like shooting over the Green Monster when it was still covered in that stupid net. However, focusing everything on the defensive end makes all of that simpler.

Anyone who has ever played pickup basketball understands the boost in confidence you receive when your opponent is rattled. After my 5’8″ body blocked one of my pals’ poor step-through attempts, he slapped the ball down as hard as he could and shouted… well, you can imagine.

I’m not a really terrific basketball player, but from that point forward, I felt like a cross between Hakeem Olajuwon and Steve Nash. I was strapping dribble handoffs off screens, and my much taller teammate and I kept putting my irritated defender in the pick-and-roll, forcing him to eat screens like Kirby doing the gigantic inhale thing. Meanwhile, the post hook was falling like never before, and I even had a dream shake. It all began with one defensive play.

If I can feel the impact of defensive intensity on my offense and teamwork, consider how much of an advantage Al Horford must get from dragging Caleb Martin off the line like the boogeyman chasing a misbehaving child. Or consider how satisfied Jaylen Brown must be after stripping Bam Adebayo, who was far too casual on the low block, and turning it into a transition dunk.

The playoffs are about planning and execution, but they are also about giving the team the impression that they have everything under control. Even in Game 1, when the Celtics simply buried the Heat under a mountain of three-point pebbles, it never felt like they were in complete control. However, in Game 3, they had Miami’s whole home floor in their back pocket.

 

 

 

 

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