The Celtics’ Superpower Was Home Court, but LeBron Was Their Kryptonite
Playing at home was a superpower for these Boston Celtics. The tough, young team was missing its two biggest stars, but as of Sunday night, it hadn’t lost a playoff game at the TD Garden. Going into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston hoped it could keep the streak alive. After a strong start, it looked like they might. But then they encountered their Kryptonite: Elimination Game LeBron James.
He was simply too powerful, producing 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists. So, on Sunday, Boston’s impressive playoff run—which they went on without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward—came to an end in an 87–79 loss. Cleveland and its king, LeBron James himself, beat them in their own house and clinched the title of Eastern Conference champions. LeBron will, for the 30th year in a row, advance to the Finals.
The Celtics’ loss wasn’t shocking when you think about the fact that that LeBron in a Game 7 is basically a weapon of mass basketball destruction. But it was shocking because, before this recent loss, the Celtics were unstoppable at home. Of course, there was a price to pay for such a pronounced home-court advantage: they were often absolutely abysmal on the road. In fact, Boston only won one road game—a nail-biter against the 76ers—during the playoffs. Its offensive rating has been more than eight points higher when they’re at home.
Cleveland stepped it up on its own court, too, of course. The team also looked sluggish on the road, except for when it mattered most in Game 7. As the Cavs’ Kyle Korver put it: “I’ve never played in a series where home-court advantage mattered this much.”
The Celtics were two different teams in the NBA Playoffs. At home, they were Dr. Jekyll, if Dr. Jekyll were, say, a very successful and handsome surgeon. When they were on the road, they were Mr. Hyde, if Mr. Hyde were Dr. Jekyll’s deadbeat brother who still lives in the basement of their parents’ house. Dr. Jekyll never misses a three; Mr. Hyde can’t make one to save his life (They were 7-of-39 in Game 7). Dr. Jekyll displays his many awards in his home office; Mr. Hyde picks up his brother’s basketball trophies from high school just to see what they feel like. Dr. Jekyll is a strapping, young Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting; Mr. Hyde is an older Ben Affleck post-divorce with a tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes splashed across his entire back.
OK, so it’s not that bad (sorry, Ben). Despite the losses, on the road they still showed flashes of being the mentally tough, defense-oriented team that Brad Stevens has coached to levels of success very few saw coming. Boston had a terrible early start in Game 4 against the Cavs, but powered back to narrow Cleveland’s lead to single digits. They managed to do so again in Game 6, coming within seven points before LeBron went into "Okay, Fine I’ll Do It Myself" mode and scored 30 million threes in the fourth quarter alone. My numbers could be off, but I’m pretty sure that’s accurate.
Because the Celtics never kicked into overdrive at Quicken Loans Arena the way they did at the TD Gahden (as Aron Baynes called it, in case you wanted to know what an Australian doing a Boston accent sounds like). They made sloppy errors: By the time they were within seven of the Cavs in Game 6, they’d missed eight free throws, as well as easy layups and many threes. It’s like something falls out of place when they aren’t surrounded by the thunderous noise of drunk Bostonians, and only clicks back in once they’re awash in green and white. Game 7 was the first time we’ve seen them at home without that fire.
Home-court advantage is very real, especially in the NBA, and especially during the playoffs. Home teams are 14% more likely to win. It’s not totally clear why, but studies have been done to show crowd support doesn’t have much of an effect on a team’s win percentage. As my colleague Ben Golliver wrote last week, coaches—Stevens included—downplay the difference home court makes. People don’t really like to give it as much weight as it has demanded during this series.
“I just think that at home, one of the big things is I truly believe it's our fans,” said Al Horford, after Game 5. “I feel like our guys feed off of them and it really just drives us as a group. When we're sometimes on the road, it's just different in the playoffs. You get on the road and you're just out there against everybody else. Here, I just think that our guys just feel comfortable and good. It's a credit to the atmosphere that's here. It's just a lot of fun to play in right now.”
That sounds like a Standard Athlete quote, but when you look at the wins and losses, it’s hard not to believe it has some sort of sway. Especially when you consider that these Celtics had to rally from a pretty dark place after Hayward destroyed his ankle in the first six minutes of the first game at home. They had to regroup again once Irving tapped out in March because of his knee. The incredibly resilient team has been tough, determined, and focused. The support of a crowd that’s hoped for this improbable success as much as the team itself can only add fuel to their “We’ll show you!” fire.
Ultimately, home wasn’t enough. The Mr. Hyde version of the Celtics showed up on Sunday, and even though Jayson Tatum did dunk on and then bump into LeBron, the team couldn’t pull it off. The fact remains that King James is an unstoppable force in the NBA. Even as a Celtics fan, I just feel lucky to be alive while he’s playing basketball at otherworldly levels. He transcends a team. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. And if the Celtics' streak had to come to an end, at least it was stopped by the greatest player ever.