Stop me if you've heard this before: the Boston Celtics start the season slowly. They make a late season push for a high seed. The Celtics struggle in Game 1 of the first round after being punched in the mouth by a upstart team with a young star. The team rallies to dispel criticism and wins the first round in six games. Then they face yet another upstart team in the second round with a star point guard. After going up 2-1, the home team wins every game in the series, leading to Boston, with their high seed, taking Game 7 at home.
I'm talking about the 2012 Boston Celtics, and Boston fans are hoping that history will repeat itself once more tonight for their 2017 counterparts. There's nothing better in sports than a Game 7. The high stakes in a winner-take-all battle make it an exciting event to observe. As a fan, it's even better when your team is at home for a Game 7. After all, home teams have a 101-26 (80%) record in NBA history. So far, the home team has won each game in this series between the Celtics and the Washington Wizards..
This match-up has featured spectacular performances from the likes of Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Bradley Beal, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford. There can only be one winner, though, and recent and long-term history smiles favorably on the Celtics.
The Lockout Year
That 2011-12 Boston Celtics team is still easily my favorite sports team of all time. The rollercoaster of emotions that the team put fans through was a wild one. The team had its highs and lows, but it ultimately exceeded expectations while engaging fans in frustrating and rewarding ways. We were there when they lost the first three games of the season. We were there when they lost Game 7 against Miami, and we were there to witness every entertaining moment in between.
One of those moments was Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. That series is eerily similar to the one the Celtics are engaged in with the Wizards now. The roles have reversed slightly, but things are largely quite similar. Boston once again has home court advantage, and they've played really well at home this season. Washington did their job by taking care of business on their home court as well. That included this ridiculous shot by John Wall to force a Game 7 in the first place:
Moving into tonight's game, the Celtics can't let that shot weigh on their mind. All that matters is tonight. In 2012's Game 7, Boston faced trouble as Paul Pierce fouled out of the contest with four minutes left in the game. Seemingly doomed to lose because of their stagnant offense, the Celtics found a way. Rajon Rondo hit two huge 3-pointers, and Boston pulled away with a win.
If history holds, Isaiah Thomas is going to foul out tonight and then Marcus Smart will save the day with back-to-back 3-pointers to seal the win, right? Maybe not, but anything's possible. Whether or not the Boston Celtics need any heroics tonight, there are some things they can do to put themselves in a good position to win.
A New Era
It seems as if the Celtics have solved the Isaiah Thomas problem. After dropping 53 points in Game 2, the Wizards appeared to have figured out how to take Thomas out of the game on offense while exposing him on defense. In Game 5, Brad Stevens adjusted by using IT as a screener for multiple possessions. It didn't free up Thomas for tons of looks, but it allowed to offense to flow better as other ball-handlers like Smart and Rozier orchestrated the offense.
In Game 6, there was much more pick-and-roll play between Al Horford (who had a stellar game) and Isaiah Thomas. This gave Thomas a few more options instead of hiding him off ball as often as they did in Game 5. Horford having a great game opened up the floor for Thomas, and this allowed him to put in 27 points. In such a high stakes contest, Boston is going to need its emotional leader to step up in any way possible. Thomas has a history of doing just that; he's definitely going to show up tonight.
As has been the case for much of the year, Boston is going to need someone else to show up to beat a quality opponent. If IT is the only player who shoots well tonight, Boston will lose. Over the past few games, Avery Bradley has been that secondary scorer, and he's been excellent. Bradley scored 29 points in Game 5 and 27 points in Game 6 to give Boston a huge boost. In Game 6, the Celtics were fortunate enough to get good scoring games from Horford, Thomas, and Bradley but still lost. While not everyone has to put in big scoring numbers to win, it's necessary to have a serviceable bench. Boston's bench gave little-to-nothing in Game 6. That has to change.
It likely will change. The energy from the crowd gives this young group a boost, and Boston is no stranger to loud cheering. The Celtics have a challenge ahead of them, but they're no stranger to adversity. Most of the players on the roster have fought hard to get to this point. Even if they go down tonight, they'll go down swinging.
At the end of the day, the Celtics' situation is even brighter than in 2012. In those days, everything about the team was relatively short-term. With the Draft Lottery occurring tomorrow night with a secured top-4 pick, the Celtics have the freedom to lose and still win long-term. The future is bright in Boston, and they'll have many more playoff runs in the years to come.
None of that matters tonight, though. All that matters tonight is Game 7. Do or die.