Basketball

Keep on moving, don’t look down

Keep on moving
Don’t look down
Keep on moving
Don’t look down

For a majority of the first four games of the series, not only did the Celtics look like they belonged in The Finals, they looked like they were the better team.

I’m here to tell you that looks were not deceiving you. The proof of the pudding is in the eating — which is a vaguely British way of saying that what a team does is what that team is. Good teams play good, bad teams play bad, and if one team shows near complete mastery over another team for eight quarters out of eleven, they are the better team over that stretch.

So what happened in Game 4?

I submit to you that the Boston Celtics looked down.

Up till that point in time, they had been playing — for the most part — their brand of basketball. The occasional Jaylen Brown or Robert Williams dunk notwithstanding, it is not a brand of basketball designed to elicit oohs and ahs. It is methodical, professional, team-oriented basketball. It is very much old-school Boston Celtics basketball.

And it was working. Everybody was buying into the notion that they could wait out the occasional Golden State run and that they could bend Golden State into playing their type of game.

Then the fourth quarter of Game 4 happened.

Ironically, what the Celtics should have realized was Kerr’s capitulation to their game plan: benching Draymond for much of the fourth and Curry for part of the third, is what proved to be Boston’s undoing.

When the Celtics lost that fourth quarter, they stopped moving and started looking down. I am no fan of color commentators in general, and so ESPN’s decision to have two color commentators due to the magnitude of the occasion drove me nuts. I never need to hear another Mark Jackson soliloquy on perimeter defense because if he knew beans about the subject, he’d probably be coaching somewhere.

Nor do I want to hear Jeff van Gundy yammering about players going to their right. Between the two of them, they rode those hobbyhorses long enough to drive me to distraction even when the Celtics were winning handily.

However, Jeff van Gundy did, like the blind squirrel finding a nut, deliver a useful observation around the middle of the first quarter of Game 5.

He pointed out that the Celtics still had a hangover from the end of Game 4.

He was right, and I think we all knew he was right.

GM’s need to always be thinking about the next season and the season after that. Coaches need to be focused on this game, and the next game, and the game after that.

Players need to be focused on this possession and the next possession and the possession after that. When the ball’s in play, they need to have short memories and they can’t be dwelling on the consequences of winning — or losing.

Now Golden State Warriors fans may object here and say that Golden State won Games 5 and 6 as much as Boston lost them, and that’s fair. But Golden State didn’t change how they were playing from Game 4 to 5. Aside from starting Otto Porter, Jr. over Kevon Looney, they made no major adjustments in Games 5 and 6, and even that was not a huge change. Porter started 15 games during the regular season.

So what, exactly, did Golden State do that prompted such different results?

I mean, if you’re going to say that GSW adjusted to Boston, then you can make a case that the Warriors’ victories in Games 5 and 6 were due to positive action on their part, but if you’re going to say that, you have to provide some sort of evidence to back it up. And to be honest, I don’t see any. At least nothing that would explain such a dramatic reversal.

It is, on the other hand, very easy to make a case that Boston displayed far less discipline in Games 5 and 6. They gave up a 21-0 run in Game 6, for crying out loud, and if that’s not evidence of a lack of discipline, then I don’t know what is. Boston turned the ball over 40 times in the final two games, as opposed to 47 times in the first four. Boston’s 22 turnovers in Game 6 were nearly one quarter of their turnover total for the series.

And saying that Golden State is ‘responsible’ for a lack of discipline on Boston’s part is equivalent to a bully saying, “look what you made me do” to a victim. If Boston got rattled, that’s 100% on them.

For the last two games of the series, Boston was unquestionably the worse team, and they were worse than Golden State because Golden State continued to play with poise while the Celtics lost theirs entirely.

The Celtics found themselves on the brightest stage the NBA has to offer, and began to doubt that they really belonged there.

For fans of other teams, the stock response might be ‘well, maybe they didn’t belong there.’

That’s ridiculous. The Celtics belonged in The Finals because they were in The Finals. It’s not like the NBA picks the teams in the Finals out of a hat. There are three rounds of playoffs before the Finals, and each round is a seven game series.

This is done to maximize revenue for the league, of course, but the side benefit is that the two teams left standing are the two teams that deserve to be left standing.

And that’s what these guys need to realize as the offseason begins…

They belonged in The Finals. They deserved to be there.

However, they did not do enough to deserve to be champions, and that’s what they need to work on.

This team, for reasons they will have to reflect on, had grown into the habit toward the end of the Brad Stevens era of playing undisciplined ball. Whatever it was Brad was telling them, they didn’t want to listen. And that carried over into much of this past season. They were undisciplined, and apparently okay with that.

Then, suddenly, around the end of January, something clicked, and the team started playing much better. But when the pressure was ratcheted up to the highest level that it gets in the NBA, the Celtics reverted to what was familiar and comfortable for them: undisciplined play.

And there’s no magic incantation that Ime Udoka can speak which will conjure up the will to play better. If these guys are not willing to invest the effort in themselves, then soon enough, they’ll begin to tune out Udoka the same way they tuned out Stevens.

But that doesn’t have to happen. As I said, this team deserved to be where it was, and compared with the work they had to put in to get this far, the effort required to win it all is minimal. These guys have come a long way since they entered the league. They just need to stretch a little farther.

They need to keep on moving.

And don’t look down.

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