If this were a television series, the critics would be calling it formulaic.
The Celtics are the home team in an NBA playoff game. Jayson Tatum and/or Jaylen Brown plays a game befitting a recurring All-Star, not a barely 20-something just beginning his ascent.
Al Horford plays superb defense, serves as the fulcrum of the offense when the younger guys start playing too fast, and ends up with a full box score that still doesn’t tell the complete story.
Marcus Smart plays in his Good Marcus form, with his rapid, perhaps rabid defense, his underrated playmaking, and even making a few semi-advisable shots.
Brad Stevens outmaneuvers his counterpart at the other end of the sideline, leaving the fellow clipboard holder in a state of bewilderment when arrives at his postgame press conference.
And the Celtics win the game, leaving us wondering why they don’t play this way on the road.
End scene. All of them, every familiar and welcome one.
The Celtics stuck to the script in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and thank goodness they did. It’s formulaic, sure, but boy does it play well to the audience.
The Celtics defeated the Cavaliers Wednesday night, 96-83, to take a 3-2 lead in the series in front of a raucous TD Garden crowd. The victory improved the home team’s record to 5-0 in the series, and it improved the Celtics’ record to a remarkable 10-0 at the Garden this postseason.
“You get on the road and you’re just out there against everybody else,’’ said Horford, who was one of several Celtics to laud the Garden crowd, praise that seems entirely genuine. “Here, I just think that our guys just feel comfortable and good. It’s a credit to the atmosphere that’s here. It’s just a lot of fun to play in right now.’’
The storyline didn’t deviate much from what we’ve come to expect from Celtics home playoff games.
It was Tatum who played the role of sensational young star, one with which he is increasingly familiar.
He scored 24 points, collected 7 rebounds, dug down for 4 steals in what might have been his best defensive performance as a pro, and knocked down important shots in the fourth quarter when it briefly looked like the Cavs might survive their death rattle.
“I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games,’’ he said afterward. “I think that’s when I have the most fun, when things are on the line. A lot of guys stepped up tonight. I can’t say it enough: We’re one win away from going to the finals.’’
Smart and Horford? All good, all the way around.
Smart hit 3 of 6 3-point attempts, scored 13 points, added 4 rebounds and 4 assists, and never gave an inch on the court without contesting it. You tell me how 16 players received more All-Defensive Team votes than Smart? He drives me nuts sometimes, but not Wednesday night. This was one of those games where you can’t imagine the team without him.
Horford had 15 points, 12 rebounds, a team-best plus/minus of plus-21, and played with his usual poise on both ends of the court.
The quintessentially subtle Horford play, the kind that does not show up in the box score but should stick in his dwindling gaggle of doubters’ minds as the sort of thing they should learn to appreciate, occurred with a few ticks under 5 minutes to play.
Terry Rozier had just hit a jumper to put the Celtics up 87-73. But the Cavs still hadn’t checked out yet, literally or figuratively.
After the made shot, James came chugging down the court at full speed, as imposing a sight as there is in basketball. It looked like a sure layup, with a decent chance of a ticky-tack foul as well since there is always a chance of a ticky-tack foul going his way.
But Horford stayed with James as he rumbled into the front court, cut him off, and kept him from getting to the hoop. There aren’t five bigs in the NBA who could do such a thing, but Horford did it, and you’re damned right that he does stuff like that all the time.
The sequence ended with Kevin Love getting his shot blocked by Jaylen Brown. The Celtics advanced to their end, Horford unleashed one of his praying mantis 3s, and the Celtics led 90-73 with 3 minutes, 53 seconds left. That, as they say, was that.
Perhaps I shouldn’t doubt a trend, but I’m convinced the Celtics have an outstanding shot of winning Game 6 in Cleveland, and not just because they outscored the Cavs in each of the final three quarters in Game 4 there Monday.
The Celtics have a real chance at flipping the script because there were alarming – or if you’re a Celtics fan, amusing — signs Wednesday night that the Cavs are wearing down.
James got into that obnoxious I’m-the-coach-of-this-five mode where if he made an errant pass, he’d be sure to point to where the teammate should have been. Occasionally he declined to hustle back on defense in order to hang out in the backcourt and argue about a non-call. And he – and beleaguered coach Ty Lue – both acknowledged that James was worn out at the end of the game.
There’s reason for them to be skeptical of Lue, too. He answered a question about why Kyle Korver – who, you may recall, hit his first nine shots over the two games in Cleveland – played so little (just 18 minutes, including some at garbage time). His puzzling answer:
“Well, initially, [Stevens] has been putting [Semi] Ojeleye in, so that’s been kind of Kyle’s matchup when he comes in the game,’’ said Lue. “He didn’t play him tonight, so it kind of threw us for a loop.’’
Did I hear this right? Lue tries to match Korver, one of the best long-range shooters in history, with Ojeleye, a rookie whose primary contribution his aggressive defense? How in the name of World B. Free does Ojeleye’s usage dictate how Korver should be used? Korver is a weapon. The Celtics should be reacting to him. It’s bizarre.
That’s one of the reasons I believe we saw real cracks in the Cavaliers tonight. There were a lot of signs – James outscoring the rest of the starting lineup (26 to 24), J.R. Smith limping around at the end of the game, Lue being at least the letter C short of a clue.
If the Celtics can avoid falling behind by 10-15 points in the first quarter Friday and weather the storm, I believe they’ll win Friday at what Cavs fans call the Q, which stands for Quicken but might soon stand for Quittin’.
As you may have heard, James hasn’t missed the Finals since 2010, when the Celtics knocked out the Cavs. You know how that went. He went into Operation Shutdown late in the game, ripped off his jersey as he left the court, and the next time we saw him, he was telling Jim Gray that yes, indeed he does still bite his nails, and oh, I’m taking my talents to South Beach.
You’ve got to admit, it’s a great idea for a script — even if it’s not an original.