Remember three weeks ago, when the Celtics were a punch line -- trailing a Bulls team loathed by its own fans, the worst No. 1 seed in history, victims of viral graphics showing the lack of production from Future Nets Picks and Cap Space (or "ol' Cap," as Kevin McHale once called this theoretical player)?
Terry Rozier was the symbol of Danny Ainge's greedy trade constipation: He wouldn't give up that guy, plus one of Boston's many non-Brooklyn picks, for a short-term upgrade like Serge Ibaka? Jae Crowder was a sticking point in talks for Jimmy freaking Butler? Really? Enjoy the long spring, fellas.
Things change fast, huh? Rozier is shooting 48 percent from 3, sporting the team's highest postseason plus-minus as part of bench-heavy units that have swung games. Ibaka is on vacation after less than three months with the Raptors, the crumbled remains of another LeBron rampage, leaving Toronto with the choice Boston didn't want: Pay Ibaka a fortune as he declines, or let him walk, having tossed away young assets for what in the end amounted to very little. Toronto went all-in, and the Cavs clowned them.
Depending on your vantage point, making the conference finals would either validate Ainge's standing pat at the trade deadline or stamp it as an over-cautious failure.
Boston would have almost no chance against Cleveland, and the "almost" is generous. Swap, say, Crowder, Marcus Smart, and a Nets pick for Butler, and the odds of an upset get better.
How much better? The Celtics would point you to Cleveland's 8-0 postseason record, their total disregard for a Toronto team with two All-Stars, and argue that adding Butler at the expense of depth would not have moved the needle enough. And that's before you even mention the Warriors, laying waste to everyone. The Celtics concluded they were better off biding their time. They can take a shot this summer at trading for one star, and signing another -- the potential double blow that had David Griffin, Cleveland's GM, admittedly worried at the deadline. (The bet here, by the way, remains that Gordon Hayward stays in Utah.)
Win Friday night, and Ainge gets to have his cake and eat it: a spot in the same round in which they would have petered out with Butler, plus an intact treasure chest.
The flip side: Imagine bringing Butler to the conference finals alongside Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford -- with Butler locked in through 2019? Isn't that the point of filling the treasure chest? Boston has no guarantee of ever making the leap from good to great. Horford is almost 31, and both Thomas and Avery Bradley will demand massive raises after next season. Kids are kids. Moving the needle even a little now is not nothing.
Given Chicago's asking price and the greatness of the two incumbent Finalists, I'd lean slightly toward the former view: that standing pat was probably the better odds play -- the path with the highest probability of producing a championship-level team at some point.
Regardless, the Celtics are one win away from making the conference finals while chilling in the lottery catbird seat. They get Brooklyn's pick again next year. Wherever you stand on Ainge, that objective reality is astonishing.
Of course, they will have to beat a Washington team that has destroyed them four straight times in D.C. Here are a few things to watch as the Wizards fight for their season:
• The Wizards too often defend with an unearned nonchalance. When they lock in, as they did in Game 3 and the second half of Game 4, they can smother most of Boston's cute secondary action by switching across four positions.
Their performance in Game 5 was inexcusable. They violated the most basic tenets of transition over and over, with every Wizard well below the foul line as John Wall careened for zooming layups:
They gifted Boston an avalanche of easy points. Wall was part of the problem; watch him chill in the corner, hands on hips, as Beal bonks a triple:
One of the first SportVU studies I saw, way back in 2012, focused on how players moved when a shot was in the air. The study found Wall, maybe the league's fastest player, just stood around. All these years later, it's still happening. Bradley roasted a snoozing Wall twice on backdoor cuts in Game 5.
Even in the first half of Game 4, an eventual blowout win, the Wizards committed at least a half dozen errors of basic miscommunication:
This isn't a February back-to-back in Los Angeles. This is a pivotal game against a 50-plus-win team. Get serious, Wiz.
• After Thomas rained 53 on them in Game 2, Washington dispatched an extra help defender toward the Thomas-Horford pick-and-roll. By Game 4, the level of help was almost absurd. Look how early Beal is in the middle of the floor, far from his original mark (Bradley):
They even played this way when Thomas hit the bench; check out Wall ditching Bradley in the left corner to bum-rush a Smart-Horford pick-and-pop:
It's one thing to ignore Smart in squeezing Thomas:
Smart lays bricks, and Boston has to mix up where they put him off the ball. Slotting him on the weak side like this puts his defender in prime help position.
But in general, this is a hyper-aggressive scheme, and I'm not sure it can work now that Boston has absorbed the initial shock and awe of it. Horford is too good a playmaker, and all of Boston's perimeter guys, save Smart, can knock down open 3s. Even in Game 4, they were beginning to pass their way to open looks:
The more shooters you have, the easier it is to burn this strategy, and I thought Stevens might start an extra shooter -- Jonas Jerebko or Gerald Green -- in Game 5 for just that reason. He chose Amir Johnson's defense, and counted on Boston beating the scheme in other ways.
By the second quarter of Game 4, Crowder was already doing it. When his guy lunged inside on Thomas, Crowder sliced backdoor into the paint, presenting Washington with a choice: concede a layup, or send another guy toward Crowder at the rim, leaving a Boston shooter open.
What was random in Game 4 became systematic in Game 5: Boston players cut almost every time their man crashed on Thomas.
That may have a chilling effect on Washington's defense Friday night. If you know your guy is creeping behind you, you might think twice about swarming Thomas. If you think twice about anything in the NBA, you're generally toast.
It's also hard to compartmentalize chaos to just Thomas-Horford pick-and-rolls. The Wizards' ultra-aggressive help bled into situations that didn't require it: Wall rushing at Horford 28 feet from the rim even though Marcin Gortat was already there, or Beal lurching away from Bradley in the near corner -- yielding an easy 3.
I'm not sure what the answer is. The Thomas-Horford dance has yanked both Chicago and Washington from their base defenses. Playing more conservatively requires Thomas' guy fight over every pick, so Thomas can't pull up for open 3s. It is a gamble of another sort. The Wizards' matchups don't lend themselves toward switching the Thomas-Horford action, and it would take a dramatic change to arrive there.
But most of Boston's lineups have enough collective passing and shooting to defang the current scheme. I just don't think Washington can win the next two games playing like this, unless Boston coughs up a heap of turnovers -- an intended result of Washington's amped-up pressure that killed Boston in Games 3 and 4.
• Boston is a bad rebounding team. That isn't changing. They lost in D.C. because they failed to rebound and committed a ton of turnovers. Clean up one of those areas, and they can win on the road.
• Washington is plus-2 for the series. Its starting lineup is plus-64 in 90 minutes. You see where this is going, right? All other Wiz lineups are minus-62 in 155 minutes -- equivalent to losing a 48-minute game by almost 20 points. The Wiz bench: still a disaster zone.
• Stevens made the right choice, or maybe the least bad one, in having Thomas guard Bradley Beal over the past two games. Wall is too good a post player, Otto Porter too dangerous on the offensive glass. Little guys are good skittering through the thickets of screens that spring shooters like Beal.
Beal has looked uncomfortable posting up Thomas with his back to the basket, though he has occasionally done damage anyway -- in part because Boston has sometimes overreacted to the perceived threat:
Jaylen Brown has a tendency to over-help like this. It is the often the reason for Stevens' Popovichian quick hook. Brown gave good minutes in Game 5, and is a natural fit for this matchup.
Beal has been better facing up, and driving into Thomas' chest. He can run off screens, and just shoot over Thomas. The Wiz might try having Beal screen for Wall, forcing Thomas to either help or switch onto Wall. They did this a few times late in Game 5, when it was too late.
• One bellwether: how Markieff Morris and Horford shoot from deep. Opponents will concede open 3s to both; Boston is ignoring Morris to clog the Wall-Gortat pick-and-roll.
• Two games-within-the-game: whether Morris can do any damage in the post against Crowder when Boston goes small, and how Ian Mahinmi handles guarding Kelly Olynyk in space. Mahinmi is out of his element chasing Olynyk around the arc, and has blown a bunch of coverages. Washington is an ugly minus-24 in the 31 minutes Mahinmi has been on the floor against Olynyk, per NBA.com.
Washington probably has to roll with this and hope Mahinmi feasts on the glass. Jason Smith has barely played since injuring his calf in the first round. If Morris can give more minutes as a backup center, Scott Brooks might want to go that route -- though those minutes have been up and down.
• The Wizards chanced 20 seconds in the second quarter of Game 5 -- one offensive possession -- with neither Wall or Beal on the floor. Brandon Jennings puked up the ball overdoing some showy, useless dribble move, and Boston nailed a transition 3. No more of this until garbage time, please.
• It was a little funny to see isolated corners of the hoops media go bananas over Thomas screening for Horford in an inverted pick-and-roll on three straight possessions -- yielding three ho-hum outcomes: one Horford turnaround over Beal on a switch; one Horford off-the-dribble long 2; and a shaky non-shooting foul on Beal.
It's a cool wrinkle. It produced points, if not amazing looks. It was not some revolutionary invention worthy of breathless postgame accounting. Brad Stevens is a great coach. He doesn't need day-to-day hagiographies. If Brooks had used that set, would we be gushing about it?
• Horford and Johnson provided near-perfect rim protection in Game 5, and they will need to again. Washington is bombarding the rim. They are averaging 33 shots in the restricted area, five more than their season average, and the corresponding drop-off has come almost entirely from midrange shots -- a healthy trade.
Horford has been an all-around menace since Game 2 against Chicago. He'll never look like a typical max player. He's not a bucket-getter. But he does everything well, and makes everyone around him better. Always has. Boston snagged Horford on the cheaper mid-career max before another leap in the salary cap. He'll live up to that contract.