Tomase: You know the Celtics aren't supposed to be doing this, right? Inside another improbable win

John Tomase
April 15, 2018 - 5:57 pm
Marcus Morris

Paul Rutherford/USA Today Sports

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Picture a random NBA game with star teammates fouled out in overtime. The final frantic moments become a scramble for survival. If the remaining mismatched parts somehow produce a win, thank a higher power you only had to navigate the last 150 seconds.

Now imagine that scenario playing out for 48 minutes a night.

Welcome to Celtics basketball.

Brad Stevens and what's left of his roster deserve more credit for how they finished their season without All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, defensive sparkplug Marcus Smart, fundamentally sound big man Daniel Theis, and of course, All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward.

Playing at times without Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris, as well, the C's still managed to lock down the No. 2 seed in the East with a string of impressive victories. They beat the Thunder and Jazz at the buzzer. They knocked off the Wolves, Blazers, and Raptors. They nearly beat the Bucks without a point guard. Playoff teams, all.

This throw-a-bunch-of-lineups-out-there-and-see-what's-working approach isn't supposed to fly in the postseason. Playoff games are won by alphas, and when the C's opened the first round on Sunday against seventh-seeded Milwaukee, the only alpha in the building wore No. 34 with antlers on his chest.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a top-five player who averaged more than 33 points a game against the C's this year. His presence, and Irving's absence, made the series no better than a toss-up. It wouldn't be crazy to label the No. 7 seeds the favorites.

But if we've learned anything about the Celtics under Stevens, it's that what others see as adversity, they see as opportunity. Hayward falls five minutes into the season? That just means 19-year-old Jayson Tatum must blossom. Smart stupidly punches a picture frame? Time to see what Terry Rozier can do. No Irving? Oh look at that, Marcus Morris averaged 18 a game after March 1.

On Sunday, the Celtics took this all-for-one approach to absurd levels. Five players scored at least 19 points in a 113-107 overtime victory that wasn't decided until Rozier, one of the smallest players on the court, skied into the lane to secure the rebound that fouled the Greek Freak out of the game.

At that point, the Celtics had already survived a crazy finish to regulation that saw Rozier calmly drill a step-back 3-pointer with half a second left, only for Milwaukee's Khris Middleton to answer with a 36-footer that survived a replay challenge to force overtime.

"It's the playoffs, man," Morris told reporters. "Crazy stuff happens. I think we all had to take a deep breath like, 'Damn.'"

Maybe someday we'll stop asking how the Celtics keep doing this and just enjoy it. On Sunday, different heroes each took three or four minutes on the stage. In one key sequence, Morris beat the shot clock with a long 2-pointer and then grabbed an offensive rebound in traffic on the next possession.

In another, Playoff Al Horford disrupted Antetokounmpo on one end and then sank free throws after recognizing a mismatch with Malcolm Brogdon. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown took turns setting each other up, combining for 39 points, 14 rebounds, and four steals.

"We just had to fight," Brown told reporters. "Whatever it was, we just had to fight. We had to earn it. Shoot, I can't even remember half the stuff that went on or half the stuff that happened. I just felt like we were out there fighting."

No player better exemplified that than Rozier. For all of their talents on both ends of the floor, Irving and Smart are most acutely missed as playmakers. There are stretches when the Celtics can barely run an offense. One of them came during Milwaukee's 24-4 blitz in the second quarter when backup point guard Shane Larkin committed four turnovers in about two minutes.

But Rozier has emerged as not just a facilitator, but a big-shot maker, and on Sunday he answered the bell. Not only did he drill the go-ahead 3 in the final seconds, he also scored eight points in overtime, including the clinching free throws.

"I said it in the preseason, that Terry, with the opportunity, could be one of the best point guards in the league and a lot of you all looked at me like I was crazy," Brown said. "So he's been showing it. He's shown spurts throughout the year, and in the playoffs he's really excited to step up."

Can they keep this up? That will be the question throughout this series and beyond, should they last that long. It's the same question we've been asking since that ill-fated lob to Hayward back in October, though, and each time the answer has been the same: You bet we can.

It's messy. It's crazy. It defies reason, and yet here we are. It's the NBA version of the scramble drill, and the Celtics run it better than anyone.

May as well stop questioning it and enjoy however much ride remains.

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