Welcome Back, Boston
The Celtics were dealt a poorly timed black cloud in the passing of Isaiah Thomas' sister days before the playoffs started and if you didn't think it influenced the team just look at the discombobulated, frustrating efforts in Game 1 and 2. Last Tuesday, after the Celtics looked farther from the team they are then they have ever been, Thomas went back to Washington to properly grieve and support himself with family. The Celtics were left to pick up the pieces of what had been an emotional and simultaneously disappointing few days, searching for a response. The Celtics play in the first two games was dreadful and from the eye test alone, the worst back to back efforts of the year. They were out rebounded viciously and looked like the weaker team unbelievably given the lack of talent on the Bulls side of the ball. D-Wade was looking good and Jimmy Butler was looking better. Rondo was being Playoff Rondo. Everything looked wrong.
Then Rondo broke his thumb and in a moment, the Celtics were gifted a second chance and from the minute the team hit the floor in Game 3, you could tell the Celtics were in full recovery mode. After racing out to a huge lead, the Celtics looked all business. No celebrating, no posturing, just doing the work. In the second quarter, the C's gave most of an 18-point lead back and the struggles that had plagued them in Boston, seemed to have followed them to the Midwest. But after halftime, they gave it the gas and finished with a 17-point victory on the road. Al Horford, Jae Crowder, and Thomas all finished in double digits as did Terry Rozier who made several big shots in the fourth quarter finishing with 11 points off the bench. (Side note: Rozier has looked better and better as this season has progressed and is contributing to a playoff team in a dire situation. Guy is starting to look like a pro and I hope he doesn't end up being a chip in a trade cause dude is gonna be good.) And don't forget Gerald Green got the start and although he only finished with 8, all his points came early and helped spark that initial first quarter run. Whatever offensive woes that had manifested were shaken off. And to be honest, they didn't look great in Game 3, despite the margin of victory being as large as it was but they had righted the ship and there were signs of life in a team that looked as good as dead 48 hours earlier.
Game 4 started off with the same offensive run from Boston they had in the third with Gerald Green looking dangerous in the first quarter getting to the rim and taking pull up threes. His veteran skill set on the floor has been a huge difference for the C's since they plugged him into the starting lineup. Yes, Al Horford is the de facto vet but Green is right behind him in terms of knowledge and experience. This is when you lean on these guys. Maybe Green isn’t the best player of the team but vets aren't rattled when the stakes are high and getting higher. After their initial explosion, the team had a loose look, something that was obviously absent in the games at home. The bench exploded after Kelly Olynyk hit a three to put Boston up by 20, and more than anyone, IT looked elated, grinning brightly, a glow to his face that had been missing in those first few games. The C's were tested throughout and instead of folding and becoming frustrated, they pulled together in a way they haven’t in recent postseasons. When Butler tried to get fresh with Marcus Smart during an inbound, Smart let him know he wouldn't be getting punked out in Chicago. Butler told the media it was an act but Marcus Smart is about that life and this moment was another sign the Celts had regained some of their toughness and swagger from the regular season. And IT, who was a ghost emotionally in the first three games, but managed to be the Celtics leading scorer, led the way in the second half with amazing play in clutch moments, something he was unable to consistently do to start the series. When the C's fell behind by one, Brad Stevens called a timeout and they responded like they have in these situations all year; they went on a 10-0 run to retake the lead and never looked back, finishing the game strong and taking a tied series back home.
What was the big difference in these games? First off, the C’s looked reenergized and focused after placing some distance between themselves and the tragedy of Chyna Thomas’ passing. The fact they were so deeply impacted as a team shows how closely knit this group is. This closeness is what brought them back from the brink as well as took them there in the first place, highlighting how key the emotional construction of a team can be. They took one of their teammates losses to heart and that to me speaks volumes of how Boston is constructed internally; a bunch of guys who live and die with one another. Kevin Garnett sent an expletive laced video to fire his Boston brethren up before Game 3, and if we know anything about KG’s passion, it’s infectious and his words helped bring this team’s focus to the forefront, no doubt. Secondly, the bench began producing, something that in Games 1 and 2, didn’t happen. Rozier, Olynk, and Smart all had big contributions intangibly and in the box score. But most importantly, Boston relaxed, had fun, and began to play like the team that was on the floor for most of the year. When you combine all three of these factors, it comes as no surprise the C’s tied the series despite being on the road. And Rondo’s thumb. Of course, there is that too. With a return to Boston for tonight’s game, the Garden will be fired up and the C’s will be looking to put on a dominate show for the hometown crowd they disappointed in games 1 and 2 with a chance to take a series lead and forget all the nasty problems that eroded them just a week ago. Let's not call it a comeback. Let's call it a karmatic turn of events that the universe tends to invoke when the balance of all things in the universe, NBA or otherwise, has been flipped on its poles. Balance is restored one way or another. A restoration of this balance transpired over the weekend in Chicago for the Celtics and you can bet they won’t let the poles flip again.