If the Boston Celtics’ first-round triumph over the Atlanta Hawks taught us anything, it's this: The only team that can prevent Boston from another crack at playing for Banner 18 is itself.
OK, we probably already knew that. But the Celtics having to sweat out a Game 6 in Atlanta after fumbling away a double-digit lead in crunch time of Game 5 only reaffirmed it. With the Bucks improbably bowing out in Round 1 -- another cautionary tale for a Celtics team that must stay healthy -- the runway to the NBA Finals is wide open.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Nothing ever is with these Celtics.
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But the fact of the matter is that they have owned the Sixers throughout Joel Embiid’s tenure and, with the soon-to-be MVP’s health uncertain entering the series, the Celtics will be strong favorites. Both Miami and New York have given Boston trouble with those teams’ physicality and grit, but the Celtics have more talent and depth than both those squads.
The question is simply whether the Celtics can stay locked in -- and healthy -- for four more weeks. If they can superglue their foot to the gas pedal, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t be back on the title stage in early June.
After an embarrassing finish to Game 5, it was encouraging to see the emotion -- and execution -- the Celtics exhibited while putting away the Hawks in the closing minutes of Game 6. Even better: Every one of their core players had a hand in getting the team to the finish line of the game and series.
But it was Boston’s superstars who made the biggest plays in the biggest spots.
Jaylen Brown hit a monster pull-up 3-pointer to tie the game at a point where it felt like Boston’s offense was in danger of sputtering again. Jayson Tatum’s emphatic putback of an Al Horford miss left him exulting with the sort of this-series-is-OVER fire that this team often seems to lack.
Marcus Smart hit a big redemption 3 after a rocky start to his fourth frame parked him briefly on the bench. Horford delivered a monster corner 3 in front of the Hawks bench, had some words for those behind him, and then boldly declared afterwards that trash-talking him usually doesn’t end well for an opponent.
That’s the sort of swagger we’ve been yearning for with these Celtics. They are talented and deeper than any remaining team and should play like it more often.
Horford, who had an up and down defensive series as the Hawks put him in some tough spots in isolation, might just be the biggest reason to be optimistic about what comes next -- or at least making sure the Celtics stay locked in against the Sixers.
Philadelphia underachieved after splurging to add Horford in the summer of 2019 and the big man drew a lot of the ire for the team failing to reach its lofty goals.
Horford tends to produce his best basketball against Philadelphia. Part of the reason the Sixers pursued him was to steal the leading authority on limiting Embiid. Nearing his 37th birthday, it’s unfair to expect Horford can singlehandedly quiet the MVP, but Embiid’s injury status and Horford’s desire will aid the Celtics in the most important matchup on the court in this series.
The Sixers will give the Celtics some headaches, particularly if Tyrese Maxey maintains his first-round efficiency (21.8 points per game while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 50 percent beyond the 3-point arc). But so much of Philadelphia’s success hinges on Embiid. The Sixers needed a monster night from him in their lone regular-season win, a game in which Boston played without multiple starters and still had a chance to win in the final seconds.
Maybe Tobias Harris is a more consistent presence (though he typically just fades into the scenery). Maybe James Harden gets to the free-throw line frequently and leaves an imprint on the series. But the Celtics are a deeper team and hasn’t had much trouble putting up points against the Sixers.
But this is the Celtics, so we’ll just mentally brace ourselves for a seven-game series.
Boston already missed an opportunity to get this series going quicker by letting Atlanta extend the first-round series to six games. Maddening in the moment, the hope is that Boston actually learned this time to not play with its food. All those extra games last season added up and left the team on fumes in the Finals.
We just keep coming back to the same theme: The Celtics control their destiny now. If they are willing to focus and put in the energy, they have all the parts to win a title. They need to take the swagger and emotion they showed at the end of Game 6 in Atlanta and more often display it moving forward.
The only team that can stop these Celtics are themselves.