Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals just ended and Boston proved us wrong yet again. Not only did the Celtics beat LeBron James and his Cavs, they absolutely destroyed them; 108-83. Yes it was in Boston but as we’ve said and heard over and over again, the Celtics are not suppose to win without their “superstars.” But here we are, third round of the NBA Playoffs and the Celtics are 3 wins away from advancing to the NBA finals. They still have a long way to go, certainly, but this team was written off before the playoffs even started. Why wouldn’t they be? For years we have heard all about what teams need in order to win it all in the NBA; 2 or 3 stars, a decent enough coach and a handful of guys ok with being forever labeled as role players. Emphasis on the 2 or 3 stars. Boston lost both superstars before the playoffs, 1 before the second half of the first game of the season. Their role players crave much more than a sidekick identity and seem to be playing with an edge the NBA hasn’t seen in a long time. Oh yea, and that coach of theirs; Brad Stevens, 41, is not what you would simply call a “decent enough” coach. He’s reserved for the most part but he gets his point across easy enough. Stevens showed us early on that he has no issues sitting guys down for doing typical NBA things; Not diving for a 50/50 ball, not getting back on defense and failing to show a certain toughness that is now becoming the trademark of this team. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Brad Stevens has finally reopened a door we thought to be long since shut; the door to team basketball. The door to sustained success with or without a proven superstar. The NBA will always resemble some form of a “players league” but thanks to Stevens and his Celtics, a new approach might start to take shape if teams can’t find or keep a star.
I tend to go back to the Denver Nuggets when thinking about this rare playoff run by the Boston Celtics. No, Denver did nothing close to what Boston is doing now but there was a time, right after Carmelo Anthony was traded, that the Nuggets would be the team to prove you can win even without a marquee player to make or break a franchise. Once Melo moved on, most figured Denver would be toast. Back to wins numbered by the teens. But thanks to a unique roster made up of guys like Gallinari, Faried, Lawson, Miller and even Andre Iguodala for a season, Denver continued to make the playoffs, even winning 57 games in 2013 earning them a top seed that year. Denver provided a very entertaining style of basketball, a style that helped fill the Pepsi Center night after night. In fact, the mile high city was known as one of the most difficult places to play that year as the Nuggets only lost 3 regular season games at home. They were unselfish, relatively unknown and most of all, starving to prove to the NBA elite that they belonged. But after more 1st round exits, fans and the front office alike began to wonder if the Nuggets were simply waisting their time with a team constructed of guys that would simply be role players anywhere else. Take Andre Iguodala for example: Top Nugget in 2013…..4th best player for the Warriors a year later. Perhaps the Nuggets were simply trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Of course, we all know the rest of the story; Denver lost in the first round to the Warriors in 2013, George Karl, the coach of the year, was fired, Iguodala jumped ship, Ty Lawson spiraled down the drain and Brian Shaw stepped in. The hope that the Nuggets could win without a star dissolved when the Kroenke’s finally waived the white flag and, whether right or wrong, admitted that they couldn’t win in the post season the way their roster had been assembled post Carmelo. The plan was that Brian Shaw could help develop some young talent into their next Melo like player but after 2 seasons, that experiment faded as well. Now they stand with Mike Malone, three superstar hopefuls in Jokic, Harris and Murray and a whole lot of promise.
The plan for Boston was to get to the Eastern Conference finals, at least. They picked up Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Erving in order to contend with the likes of James and the Cavs. But their vision for the 2017/18 season was destroyed due to unexpected long term injuries to both big time acquisitions from the past offseason. However, Brad Stevens didn’t waiver. He kept his focus and continued to preach “toughness” and “togetherness.” Stevens wanted this team to be so close that he eliminated rookie hazing. He wanted the rookies to take on just as much ownership as the vets. He wanted role players to be just as important as the go-to guys. He inserts himself into drills when he feels he can’t make his point from the sideline. Sure, guys like Horford, Tatum, Rozier and Smart are showing us what a giant chip on your shoulder can do in the playoffs, but it’s truly Brad Stevens and the culture he’s created that’s launching this team to the next level. Obviously they’ll go back to superstar mode next year with Hayward and Irving come back but perhaps the rest of the NBA will take notice that getting deep into the playoffs can happen even without the biggest names in the game.