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Down 1-0, The Celtics Face a Must-Win in Boston Tonight

Sunday night, as the 1 seed Celtics took the court in Boston against the Chicago Bulls, it was pretty blatant that something was different. Isaiah Thomas, just a day removed from learning of the death of his 22-year old sister in a car accident, was in uniform and ready to play, but basketball was clearly secondary. As he sat courtside fighting back tears and being embraced by his teammates and friends in the organization, you couldn’t help but wonder: how the hell is this guy gonna perform tonight? Well, he answered that question with a game-high 33 points (including 12 in the 4th), 6 assists, and a team-high +12 on the night. On a night that any reasonable fan would’ve given him a free pass if he wasn’t his best, he was exactly what the Celtics needed.

The problem was, it wasn’t enough: the Celtics gave up 20 offensive rebounds, got just 22 points from their bench, and couldn’t hold onto an early lead, ultimately dropping Game 1 106-102. Now, I don’t agree with the seemingly popular narrative that the sky is falling, the Celtics are toast and they’re the worst 1 seed to ever exist in the NBA, but I’m definitely sure about this: Game 2 tonight is a MUST. WIN.

I don’t care about the fashion in which the Celtics win this series. I don’t care if they come back and win the next 4 in a row, or the series goes 7 games and goes down to the final shot. Don’t forget that in 2008 (might ring a bell, this happened), it took the 1 seed Celtics 7 games to knock off the 8 seed Atlanta Hawks. But the Celtics also got out to a 2-0 lead in that series, and won every home game. I have the utmost faith in this team, and I won’t ignore that the Celtics won 23 road games (tied for most in the Eastern Conference), but dropping 2 games at home against a Bulls team that’s been playing their best basketball in the past few months is a recipe for a rough series and an unexpectedly long offseason.

Luckily, things bode well for the Celtics in Game 2. For starters, Thomas will be back, and although dealing with an unexpected death in the family never truly gets easier, he’s had a couple days to collect his thoughts. He’ll be heading out west to be with his family right after the game, and obviously all of Celtics Nation wishes him and his family the best. Some things are bigger than sports, this clearly being one, but it’s incredibly impressive that Thomas was able to do what he did Sunday night after what his family was put through over the weekend. Expect another top-notch performance from IT4.

Aside from Isaiah, there were some other impressive performances in Game 1 as well that give me a little hope heading into tonight. Al Horford, labeled a terrible signing for much of the year by stupid fans who enjoy jumping to absurd conclusions, had a huge game on Sunday. He was 2nd among Celtics with 19 points, and also tacked on 7 rebounds and 8 assists. Avery Bradley contributed 14 points and his usual stellar on-ball defense, and Jaylen Brown was 2 of 2 shooting in 11 minutes off the bench. But as far as bench output, it followed a concerning recent trend – mediocrity. Marcus Smart led the reserves with 9 points, but was 3 of 9 from the field and recorded a team-worst -13 on the night. Not what we’ve come to expect from the scrappy young guard, and the rest of the Celtics bench was similarly lackluster.

Bottom line, if the Celtics are gonna tie this series up heading to Chicago, the effort on the glass is going to need to be greatly improved. This is obviously nothing new, as rebounding was this team’s biggest weakness all season long, but Sunday was downright embarrassing. The Bulls pulled down 16 offensive rebounds in the first half of Game 1 – that is just unacceptable. I couldn’t even keep track of how many times we watched Amir Johnson or Kelly Olynyk just stare at a Chicago big man as he tipped in a missed shot. I almost lost it, and it wasn’t just because I had money on the game (although that certainly played a part). It’s one of those things that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet or get you the segment on Sportscenter, but boxing out is the key if the Celts are gonna stay in this series, and prove to the rest of the NBA that them being the #1 seed is not a fluke.

The bench is also going to need to step up big time tonight. Boston’s bench was outscored by Chicago’s reserves 35-22 on Sunday, and the bench as a whole was 8-22 shooting (5-13 from three) and pulled down just 9 rebounds between the 6 guys that played. You can’t win playoff games without a strong bench performance, it’s as simple as that. We saw it in Game 1 when Bobby Portis dropped 19 off the bench to spark the Bulls, and the Celtics are going to need someone to step up in that fashion. In front of a home playoff crowd, nothing gets momentum on your side quite like a bench guy scoring 7 or 8 consecutive points to spark a little run for the home team, and if anyone’s gonna be that guy tonight, I think it’ll have to be Marcus Smart. Smart has been arguably the most consistent player on Boston’s roster this year not named Isaiah, and his performance in Game 1 reeked of a young guy trying too hard to prove himself in the biggest game of his life. He’s an aggressive player and that style works for him to a point, but he’ll have to slow his game down a bit and rely on his athleticism and basketball IQ if he’s gonna be as effective as Boston needs him to be in Game 2.

So yes, Game 1 was atrocious. Yes, the Celtics didn’t look like themselves and, yes, tonight is a must win game for Boston. That’s all true, but so is this: this is exactly what any true Celts fan expected from this team in the playoffs. They’re inconsistent, they’re scrappy, but when it comes down to it, they’re incredibly talented. If they’re able to at least keep the rebounding battle close, get some contributions from guys like Smart and Brown, and not let Jimmy Butler get too hot at any time, this is an undeniably winnable game. And heading into Chicago with a tied series coming off a win, I’d feel really good about this team’s chances moving forward. But hey, one game at a time.

8:00 tip-off. TNT. Let’s get it.

One Comment

  1. alex

    April 18, 2017 at 7:40 pm

    good stuff keegs! go c’s!

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