Many thought the NBA Eastern Conference crown was soon to be named as the Miami Heat had taken a series commanding 3-1 lead over the Boston Celtics. Many have been quite puzzled and confused at the recent struggles of the Celtics. Given the regular season, superior talent, and playoff experience, the Celtics were seen as the bigger juggernaut to the Miami Heat. The Heat have flat out just outworked the Celtics. They’ve displayed true team play, unity, and unselfishness since the bubble started. Not everyone expected the series to unwind like this.
Even with the up and down play as of recent, the Celtics managed to take Game 5 in the series upending the Heat in convincing fashion 121-108. The 17-point scoring 3rd quarter for Jayson Tatum and 12-point scoring 4th quarter for Jaylen Brown powered the Celtics to victory as the young duo combined for 59 points. Everyone knows the Celtics are the more talented team but they seem to have a common denominator issue that the Clippers have; a lot of talented guys but no defined team identity.
Everyone knows Jayson Tatum is the alpha for the Celtics, the best player, and go-to scorer. That was the same with the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard. But having too many mouths to feed can be the Achilles heel for a team’s offense to run as smoothly as it’s imagined on paper. Both teams have an abundance of guys that can go create instant offense, but the problem is that when you have teams that are 8-9 deep and thrive on “everyone eats” mentality, those role players it is dependent on gets tricky.
The difference between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics is that the Heat knows who they are. Much like the Clippers, the Celtics have been trying to figure out what their identity was all season. Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward, at critical moments this year, have been either sidelined or haven’t been up to 100% due to lingering health issues. There’s no excuse for their play, but it would be pretty naïve to believe that that hasn’t played a factor in the Celtics’ inconsistency as of late. Marcus Smart made his name for what he brought to the Celtics off the bench as the heart of the team. Him starting along three other score first creators in Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown can be iffy at times because Smart is the type of player where if he’s scoring; great. But if he’s forcing shots, especially when they really primarily depend on him for defense and playmaking purposes, it can throw off an NBA team’s rhythm.
It’s not a knock on Marcus Smart because he’s grown into an undisputed leader for this Celtics squad and has made huge strides on his perimeter jumper and playmaking but it’s also about team balance. Smart is already in during crunch time but perhaps those other minutes with the starters should be run with the second unit because then he can get into a rhythm and not worry about other taking shots. A lot of mirroring things from last year’s Celtic’s playoff with Kyrie Irving particularly in the Bucks series. A little bit too much offense relied on isolation and hero ball in key moments.
NBA box scores can be misleading and taken out of context when you see 8-9 guys with a shot attempt. You begin to think oh well the team shared the ball and everyone was able to get theirs. Eh. That’s not a very efficient offense if all of the players are trying to score in isolation and from the perimeter. You’re just bailing the defense out. The Heat, on the other hand, do have players that can score in isolation but their biggest advantage in isolation is not what makes their engine go.
Arguably, from a value standpoint, Bam Adebayo brings the most to the table for the Heat. Adebayo opens up the floor so much by providing that presence in the middle of the floor for their playmakers in Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. That constant cutting, screen play, and activeness are what gets sharpshooters Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro these open looks. Adebayo, being able to guard 1-5 on defense, puts him in a class of his own and he’s disrupted the Celtics thus far. At times the Celtics have displayed this unselfishness and being able to play a full 60 minutes of basketball like in Game 5. But the Adebayo X-factor makes you think how this team would look if Al Horford had re-signed with the team last summer.
No one really expected Horford to not flirt with NBA free agency and take less money than the market in order to resign with the Celtics. But it’s much undervalued what Horford provided for the Celtics in his stint in Boston. It’s not a fluke that he was a vital part of the Celtics team that took the Lebron James led Cavaliers to Game 7 back in 2018. His two-way versatility, being able to stretch the floor, and be a dependable threat from the perimeter were all keys to the Celtics success the past three, four years.
All of those things are the reason why NBA big men like current starting center Daniel Theis are going extinct even if he’s being that anchor in the paint. Perhaps Adebayo’s presence is speaking volumes to what the Celtics need. Gordon Hayward is a very underrated player and people forget he was a Western Conference All-Star back in 2017. The gruesome leg injury happened, he signed with the Celtics, and here we are. As solid a player as Gordon Hayward is, the Celtics really don’t need an aging scoring wing that is declining physically as much as they could use someone like Al Horford. Perhaps Game 5 was just a preview of what’s to come from the Celtics.
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