The Boston Celtics lack an identity, but will it matter?
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
They are an elite defensive team of devastating efficacy, yet somehow also prone to being on the wrong end of prolonged scoring bursts from opponents, sometimes with game-shifting consequences.
They are a unified group that will need to be together more than ever for this ultimate showdown, but they have no problem calling each other out with the sternest tough love when required.
And they are an exhausted collection of players, having taken the court every other day for nearly a full month now, yet committed to pressing and harrying the Warriors with the utmost degree of physicality.
Here Boston is, in the NBA Finals, chasing destiny. After a troubled start to the campaign that exposed all their weaknesses, it was the Celtics who were mentally strongest in the postseason, sweeping away the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, then steeling themselves just in time to see off the Milwaukee Bucks and the Miami Heat.
There have been some honest conversations along the way, and no shortage of tense moments, too. Now, the Celtics will go into the battle with Golden State knowing that but for a late missed 3 by Jimmy Butler, they would be watching from home.
It has been the survivalist’s path for them, flawed but good enough.
"We bring it all," guard and NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart told reporters. "We don’t hold anything back from each other. I think that’s the beauty of it. I think that growth is inevitable when you do things like that, when you bleed and you sweat and you cry together. We don’t want to be babied. We are grown men, we’re professionals and we want to be treated like that."
Tatum and Brown get most of the attention, but with a star-studded lineup on the other side in the Finals, depth is going to be mightily important. Smart’s defensive prowess will be critical, as will Rob Williams and Al Horford in the paint.
"This is going to be a great Finals," former Celtics star Antoine Walker told FS1’s "First Things First." "This has got everything you want. This is going to be about balanced attacks. I just think Boston is a little bit bigger, a little bit deeper. Marcus Smart is the X-factor in this series. (There are) multiple guys they can throw at Steph Curry. There should be a little (bad) blood in this series, too."
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr clashed with Smart back in March over a play that ended up knocking Curry out of the game, although Kerr did praise Smart heavily this week, likening his talismanic input to the role Draymond Green adopts for Golden State.
"(Smart’s) strength and his anticipation, he’s got an incredible feel for the game at that end," Kerr told reporters. "He’s like the guard version of Draymond. He’s reading angles, he’s guarding all five positions. He’s appropriately named, very smart player and really versatile and a great, great defender."
The Celtics should, in theory, be wearier, with their Heat series not ending until three days after the Warriors dispatched Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks. Yet there is a sense of calm running through the squad and an inherent belief — why wouldn’t there be after battling through two slugfest series in succession?
One thing will likely need to be fixed immediately, though. Struggling to protect leads — occasionally even huge leads — has plagued Boston all season, an odd phenomenon for a team typically so good at preventing others from scoring.
The lowlight was surrendering a 24-point gap to the New York Knicks in January, but time and again mini-runs have been allowed, to the frustration of head coach Ime Udoka. One such burst almost ended the Celtics’ season a few days ago, when a 13-point buffer against Miami with less than four minutes remaining shrunk to two.
The talk coming out of the Eastern Conference finals’ seventh game was largely about whether Butler should have taken that ill-fated shot for the lead, but the most pertinent issue might have been how the Celtics allowed it to get so close to begin with.
It’s just one more question and for all their progress since hitting a low point of 18-21 earlier in the year, there are still a bunch of lingering doubts involving Boston. They still don’t truly know who they are.
But they have stuck around long enough to be at a point where it soon may not matter. If they can bring their best for a few games the question of their identity answers itself with one word — champions.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.