John Tomase

One play in Warriors rout shows why Celtics are NBA's most feared team

The Celtics look like they finally 'get it.'

NBC Universal, Inc.

One play in Sunday's annihilation of the Warriors illustrated why the Celtics are now rightfully declared the NBA's best team, and it didn't even end with a basket.

After manipulating the 2-for-1 game masterfully in the closing seconds of the second quarter, the Celtics held for the last shot, up an incomprehensible 44 points. Jayson Tatum brought the ball over halfcourt, and here was the first difference – Tatum almost always dribbles out the clock in end-of-quarter possessions before launching a low-percentage shot. But this time he swung the ball without hesitation, where it found Jaylen Brown.

The Warriors had employed a dubious defensive strategy to open the game, sagging off Brown like Ben Simmons or Rajon Rondo and daring him to shoot. Seven minutes and 19 points later, Brown had issued his reply: You can't be serious.

Now he looked to put the capper on his sizzling first half. With the slower Dario Saric checking him on the left wing, Brown could get whatever he wanted.

Five years, one year, hell, even two months ago, Brown would've rummaged through his bag and taken a contested 3-pointer while the broadcasters optimistically intoned, "Heat check!" before it clanged side rim. No one would hold it against him. The Celtics led big, Brown was cooking, and he had earned it.

Not this time. Brown could've easily elevated over Chris Paul's belated double team and let one fly, but Derrick White stood alone in the corner, and Brown surrendered his good shot for the proverbial great one. White's open 3 rattled in-and-out at the buzzer, leaving everyone in the building – not to mention White amidst the entire Warriors bench – to display an extra beat of shock that it hadn't gone down.

What's the difference between 82-38 and 85-38, you ask? Nothing. And everything.

The Celtics finally get it, for real, and the rest of the NBA is going to have to deal with it. We have prematurely proclaimed them the best team in the league too many times to count over the last five years, but at some point it's going to be true, and that time is now.

Whether it's the maturation of Tatum and Brown, the arrival of selfless veterans Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, or the extraction of the combustible Marcus Smart and Grant Williams, the Celtics have finally taken the step of playing for each other first and trusting that results will follow.

Our own Eddie House put it best after last week's blowout of the Mavericks: "I trust this team," he said, with the dawning awe that it was finally true.

The Warriors have long represented the ideal the Celtics couldn't quite meet. From the 2022 Finals collapse to last winter's season-shattering loss in Golden State to the 17-point lead they blew out West in December, the Celtics have consistently been cowed by the Dubs, with their four recent titles and penchant for playing beyond the sum of their considerable parts.

Not anymore. On Sunday, the Celtics never flinched.

In a different time, Brown might have shot 1 for 10 against such an unorthodox defense, and Draymond Green and Steve Kerr would've smugly shrugged, "We took a chance." In a different time, the incomparable Steph Curry wouldn't have missed 11 of his 13 shots or wilted under the relentless assault of full-court pressure, the Celtics saying, "We're taking the fight to you." In a different time, there would have been an inevitable Warriors run to chop a 22-point deficit to five by halftime.

That time is over. Today's Celtics can beat you inside with Tatum and Jrue Holiday, in the high post with Porzingis, and from 3 with everybody. They can ride Brown for one quarter and Tatum the next. Their defense remains an aggressive, switching nightmare, and new arrival Xavier Tillman brings the rugged dimension they've lacked.

The fact that they could lay a 52-point thumping on the Warriors without Porzingis shows what a nightmare they've become. It only took one play on Sunday to illustrate how they've changed, and don't let the score at that particular moment mislead you. Making the right play when no one would've begrudged the wrong one is a sign of a machine operating at peak, effortless efficiency.

June can't get here fast enough.

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