Jae Crowder

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

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USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."

Bulls' Rajon Rondo fined $25,000 for attempting to trip Celtics' Jae Crowder in Game 3

Bulls' Rajon Rondo fined $25,000 for attempting to trip Celtics' Jae Crowder in Game 3

Rajon Rondo's emergence made sure the Bulls played on the edge but one always had to wonder where he would go over the line—an aspect Jae Crowder and the NBA figured out Friday night.

Rondo was fined $25,000 by the NBA for sticking his leg out in an apparent attempt to trip Crowder when Crowder was close to the Bulls' bench late in the first quarter of Game 3 Friday night.

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Television replays caught Rondo's leg extending after Crowder hit a 3-pointer right in front of the Bulls' bench.

When asked Rondo claimed that due to an ACL surgery he had several years ago he had to extend his leg to keep it from getting stiff.

"When you tear an ACL your leg gets stiff on you. I always do that," Rondo said. "He may have been so deep on our bench."

Upon investigation from the NBA, it issued Rondo a stiff fine and the increasingly contentious series will take another turn Sunday evening in Game 4.

Rondo is expected to miss the rest of the series with a broken right thumb after being a key to the Bulls taking a 2-0 lead by stealing two wins in Boston last week, averaging a near triple-double.

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

The Celtics took care of a Milwaukee Bucks team without their four leading scorers on Wednesday night, securing the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time since 2008, when they won 66 games en route to the franchise’s 17th NBA title.

Just four years after entering rebuilding mode following the trades of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have regained supremacy in the East under Brad Stevens.

Conversation about the Celtics begins and ends with Isaiah Thomas, the 5-foot-9 point guard who took the jump to super-stardom in 2016-17. He finished the regular season second in scoring (29.1) behind Russell Westbrook, and was fifth in usage (33.8%), ahead of players such as Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and LeBron James. Simply put, the Celtics rely on their All-Star guard plenty. Thomas set a Celtics record by scoring 20 or more points in 43 straight games, and his 9.8 points per fourth quarter were second in the NBA. Thomas knows how to close games, which could be crucial in the postseason.

After missing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes the Celtics found the next best option in free agent Al Horford. The four-time All-Star saw a slight dip in his shooting numbers but dished out a career-best 5.0 assists and solidified the center position on a team that desperately needed it. The only other players to reach Horford’s thresholds in points (14.0), rebounds (6.8) and assists (5.0) were Russell Westbrok, James Harden, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those could be four members of the All-NBA first team. Good company indeed.

Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley have always been plus defenders, with the latter earning All-NBA Defensive first team honors a year ago. But both players made a jump on the other end of the floor this year that helped Boston jump to the top of the East. Bradley averaged a career-high 16.4 points while Crowder shot a career-best 46.2 percent from the field and became a dependable 3-point shooter, connecting on 40 percent of his triples.

Bradley played in just 54 games while dealing with an Achilles injury during the season’s second half, and Horford missed time in November with a concussion. Both players are back and logging 30+ minutes, putting the Celtics at full-strength heading into the second season.

Other contributors include defensive standout Marcus Smart, though his shooting (35.9%) remains an issue. Rookie Jaylen Brown saw an increase in minutes with Bradley sidelined and proved to be a capable player on the second unit. Amir Johnson does the dirty work inside, while Kelly Olynyk’s stretch-four capabilities give Stevens a different look. Terry Rozier, Gerald Green, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller all could see spot minutes during the series, but won’t have a direct impact on its outcome.

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Boston sat third in the East following a late January three-game losing streak. At 26-18 they were safely into the playoffs and still in shouting distance of the Cavaliers and second-seeded Raptors.

Then, on Jan. 25, the Celtics knocked off the Rockets – one of their most impressive wins of the year – to begin a stretch of seven straight wins, and 11 of their next 12 total. It pulled them within 2.5 games of the Cavs. They maintained that second seed despite Washington’s resurgence – Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury in Toronto helped, too – and eventually caught struggling Cleveland by winning 12 of their last 16 games.

Having the East’s best road record (23-18) helped, and only Cleveland (31-10) was better than Boston’s 30-11 home mark. Thirteen other NBA teams finished with a winning record; Boston beat 11 of them at least once, with only San Antonio and Oklahoma City sweeping two-game series against the C’s.

Boston finished the year seventh in net rating, which trailed only Toronto in the East. They were one of five teams to finish in the top-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Golden State, Toronto, San Antonio, Utah).

Offensively they use the 3-pointer as much as any team in the league not named the Houston Rockets. Their 33.4 attempts per game ranked third in the NBA behind Houston and Cleveland (33.9 attempts), and they made a respectable 35.9 percent.

Where the Celtics are best is distributing and taking care of the ball. They ranked second in the NBA in assist ratio (percentage of possessions ending in an assist) and assist percentage (percentage of field goals that were assisted). Though Thomas, their leading passer, handed out only 5.9 assists per game, Boston’s 25.2 assists per game were fourth in the NBA. Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier can all handle the ball, while Horford is one of the game’s best passing centers.

They also take care of the ball. Boston’s turnover percentage (percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) ranked 8th in the NBA, and third among playoff teams.

If there’s one area where the Celtics struggle, it’s on the glass. Despite adding Horford, and having one of the better rebounding guards in Bradley, the Celtics finished 27th in rebound percentage (48.5%). Only the Mavericks, Pelicans and Nets were worse (Note: Rebound margin is not a thing). Horford and Bradley missing a combined 41 games may have contributed to that, but between Horford, Johnson, Olynyk and Zeller, there aren’t many plus rebounders on the team.

Outside of the Warriors and Spurs, there isn't a more balanced team in the league than the Celtics. They can play big with Horford and Amir Johnson, or play Crowder at power forward in a small-ball lineup. The combinations of Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier give Stevens, one of the game's most respected head coaches, plenty of options. They'll be a tough out in the postseason if they can overcome their rebounding woes and, of course, remain healthy.