"We can't be experimenting in game 63." That's what Boston point guard Isaiah Thomas said on Monday, a half-hour or so after the Celtics had lost by 14 to the Los Angeles Clippers and a day after they'd dropped a game to the lousy Phoenix Suns. There were plenty of ways to read his remarks—it was standard-issue superstar grouchiness or it was a hint of some deeper issue—but the most tempting was as proof that the Celtics, those well-coached and weirdly assembled league darlings, were finally reaching that part of the calendar when cleverness doesn't work as well. A few tricky after-timeout sets might cover up the deficiencies of a thin front line and a 5'9" playmaker in January; they tend not to work quite as well in March and April.
Well, so much for that. The Celtics hung tough with the Golden State Warriors for three quarters in Oakland Wednesday night, and then, in the fourth, applied the clamps on one end and flashed their ingenuity on the other. After entering the last frame trailing by two, Boston went on a characteristically balanced 15-0 run to pull away. Jae Crowder hit spot-up threes, Thomas stuttered and popped, and Avery Bradley jumped passing lanes. The Warriors finished with a season-low 86 points; the Celtics, who notched a win against the Cavaliers last Wednesday, had all of a sudden beaten both presumed Finals participants in the span of a week.
After the game, a happier Thomas lauded his teammates. "We just made it tough on them," he said. "I keep saying it but those three guys—[Marcus] Smart, Avery, and Jae Crowder—they should be on one or two of those all-defensive teams because they make it tough on everybody each and every night." Indeed, making it tough seems like something of a credo for Boston on both ends; they specialize in forcing teams out of familiarity. Loading up against LeBron James is daunting but at least predictable, but the Celtics also make teams guard against Smart post-ups and Al Horford threes in successive possessions. With Bradley back in the fold, the discomfort extends the full 94 feet; no player besides Houston's Patrick Beverley matches Bradley's ability to get inside opposing guards' jerseys and turn simple pick-and-rolls into minefields.
And yet that suddenly promising past week might not mean all that much for Boston's title chances; last night's win, of course, came with a Kevin Durant-sized caveat. Just as the game evolves over the course of a season, playoff basketball is its own distinct thing, and an environment in which the complexity that benefits the Celtics during the daily grind of the regular season might work against them. Over the course of a seven-game series, the opportunities for surprise narrow, and the advantage shifts to those force-of-nature players who can broadcast exactly what's coming and accomplish it nonetheless. Should they reach the Eastern Conference Finals, it seems certain that the Celtics will have to live with hard-odds triples from Thomas set against LeBron's planet-destroying drives; it seems just as certain that they'll lose that exchange, in five games or in seven.
Still, after standing pat at the trade deadline and enduring a little in-house consternation, Boston remains the envy of most of the league. They're set to pick near the top of a loaded draft in June, and for now they have what every team wants, second only to true contention: a locked identity, and an outside chance.