There are 15 teams in the playoffs that believed they'd get here. Some had longer shots than others, but all hoped in their heart of hearts that they'd end up playing beyond mid-April.
And then, there are the Boston Celtics.
Only the most optimistic Boston superfans thought the Celtics could make the postseason. They entered the year with a young roster, inexperienced coach and a clear goal of accumulating draft picks for a long rebuilding project. They advanced further on that path by dealing a disgruntled Rajon Rondo to Dallas in December and top scorer Jeff Green to Memphis in January. Each trade brought back an anonymous crew of players and protected future draft picks. These are not moves a team trying to reach the playoffs ever makes.
Yet they somehow made the Celtics stronger. Their band of misfits tore through the East after the All-Star Break, led by a weird combination of three combo guards, multiple stretch big men and a 5'9 offensive dynamo run out of town by his previous team. They played differently than NBA teams generally do, pulling opponents away from the basket on one end and preventing them from getting through the first line of defense on the other. Through it all, Brad Stevens earned everyone's respect, whether they be Celtics fans, fans of other teams, players around the league, analytically-minded pundits or NBA executives.
These type of teams tend to fail in the playoffs because the talent gap is more pronounced, but even getting here is a huge accomplishment for Stevens' team.
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How they beat you
The Celtics illustrate how the threat of three-point shooting matters far more than actually making three-point shots. The Celtics are shooting just 32.5 percent from downtown since acquiring Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline and have only one player who shoots above 36 percent from deep for the season. But they keep on firing because their players hit just enough for defenses to guard them, opening the floor for cooler stuff.
The threat of shooting allows Stevens to work his magic. The Celtics' coach designs creative sets that keep all players on the move while leaving the paint open. Big men like Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Bass and Jonas Jerebko stay out of the paint, which makes it easier for decent cutters and average drivers like Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Marcus Smart to get to the hoop. That also makes Thomas, a quick penetrator and finisher that frustrated his previous teams by dribbling too much, that much more dangerous. This is the formula that has Boston in the top 10 in offensive efficiency since the All-Star Break.
Yet the Celtics' defensive competency has been more impressive. Boston ranks eighth in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions since the trade deadline despite lacking any interior depth. The Celtics are the rare team that stops penetration at the point of attack. Smart, Bradley and Jae Crowder are constantly in their man's shorts and never seem to get caught on a ball screen. That leads to turnovers and frustrated wild floaters that clang off the rim. The Celtics have allowed the 10th-fewest shot attempts in the restricted area and and seventh-most from eight to 16 feet since the All-Star break despite having no rim protectors.
How you beat them
Eventually, teams will figure out they don't actually shoot three-pointers well. It's easy to forget players like Crowder and Smart aren't that much of a threat from deep when it's March and the Celtics are the fifth game in seven nights. It's easier to remember not to chase them when you're locked in during a playoff series. The Celtics need to find more creative ways to get good shots against locked-in defenses.
The Celtics also take too many mid-range shots. They rank eighth in attempts since Feb. 18, thanks mostly to Bradley and Turner. Neither can resist the temptation to pull up when they have an inch of daylight, and while they occasionally get hot, it's a losing proposition in the long run to have them shooting so much. Stevens is forced to live with those shots because they at least maintain the threat of being dangerous offensive players, which is more than most others on the team can say. That threat will dwindle further every time Turner takes seven dribbles and clanks a shot from the right elbow.
Also remember that Boston's rim protection is poor outside of Zeller. Olynyk in particular is a train wreck defensively and will be exposed against Tristan Thompson.
Most important player
It's fitting that the Celtics' most important player doesn't start and was cast aside by two teams for being a chemistry issue. Since arriving in a deadline deal with the Suns, Thomas has run wild on second units and emerged as Boston's crunch-time scorer.
After playing with a post-up big man in Sacramento and alongside two other lead guards in Phoenix, Thomas is thriving with all the space and responsibility Stevens' offensive provides. He's always been able to split double teams and flip in circus shots like this, but there are fewer defenders standing in his way after the initial move.
Thomas has lots of ambition, so one has to wonder how long he'll accept this sixth man role. Maybe he should start, considering the three-man guard duo of Smart, Bradley and Turner is being outscored by nearly six points per 100 possessions when they share the court.
At the same time, his value in part derives from being such a rapid change of pace from the starting unit. Hopefully he realizes there are worse fates than following in a long legacy of great Boston sixth men.
Kelly Olynyk violated the first rule of Fight Club
The symbol of the Celtics' magical (yes, we're using that word) late-season run came in early April after Olynyk, who looks more like a Dazed and Confused extra than an NBA player, was elbowed in the head by a teammate during shootaround. He got a black eye and seriously don't look at this picture unless you're sure you can handle it.
Kelly Olynyk looks like a monster in a Guillermo Del Toro movie. pic.twitter.com/m8OdbeKJue— Tom Westerholm (@Tom_NBA) April 1, 2015
Olynyk wasn't supposed to play, but did so anyway and scored 19 points on 7-10 shooting in a big win over the playoff-chasing Pacers. Not even a black eye can keep this team down.