Here in Utah, everybody should have seen this coming.
The Boston Celtics own a 2-0 lead over Cleveland in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, in a season when they’ve played without Gordon Hayward and also lost Kyrie Irving to injury. They’re healthy, compared with the state of the team in late March when Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ game vs. the Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
That’s the night Boston somehow hung around and then scored the game’s last nine points, earning a 97-94 victory via Jaylen Brown’s 3-pointer in another demonstration of Brad Stevens’ coaching ability.
And so this theme continues, approaching the five-year anniversary of the summer when the Celtics and Jazz tore down their rosters to begin a rebuilding project. The dueling reconstruction has been fascinating to watch, for reasons that just keep multiplying.
Danny Ainge, one of the most celebrated athletes in BYU history, operates the Celtics. Stevens was Hayward’s college coach. The Jazz found Quin Snyder, their own rising star in the coaching profession. Hayward left the Jazz last summer, joining the Celtics in free agency. Jae Crowder ended up with the Jazz in February after Boston traded him to Cleveland last summer in the Irving deal.
And now Boston is on the verge of playing in the NBA Finals, threatening to end LeBron James’ season before June for the first time since 2010.
Mix in how Cleveland’s roster includes two of Hayward’s 2017 Jazz teammates (George Hill and Rodney Hood), plus another ex-Jazzman (Kyle Korver), and this series gets even more interesting from a Utah perspective. Unscientific polling of Utahns suggests they fall into three categories: Those who appreciate James and cheer for Hill, Hood and Korver; those who prefer Boston’s team-oriented offense; and those who endorse the Bitter Jazz Fan Fantasy.
That involves the Celtics winning the NBA title without Hayward, and then failing to win it next season when he’s playing for them. Those folks also would enjoy having Hayward’s re-entry to the Celtics next season become as awkward as possible, considering the team’s glut of talent at his position.
The part about the 2018 championship is unlikely to happen, with Boston presumably running into Golden State in the NBA Finals, but getting there without Hayward and Irving would be remarkable.
RECONSTRUCTION ERA: The Celtics and Jazz have torn down and rebuilt their rosters in the past five years. The results:
Celtics: 2013-14 • 25-57.
2014-15 • 40-42 (first round).
2015-16 • 48-34 (East finals).
2016-17 • 53-29 (East semifinals).
2017-18 • 55-27 (TBD).
Total • 221-189.
Jazz: 2013-14 • 25-57.
2014-15 • 38-44.
2015-16 • 40-42.
2016-17 • 51-31 (West semifinals).
2017-18 • 48-34 (West semifinals).
Total • 202-208.
This is good stuff. It all started in 2013, when Ainge traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets, mainly for draft picks that he has turned into Brown and Jayson Tatum. Ainge also hired Stevens, subjecting him to one year of a depleted roster before the turnaround took effect.
The Jazz’s coincidental process was less dramatic, starting that summer with general manager Dennis Lindsey absorbing Golden State’s discarded players and allowing Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to depart in free agency. A year later, he hired Snyder, who is becoming the West’s version of Stevens, with modern analytics and statistical analysis shaping their coaching philosophies.
Star power from those top-three draft picks and the advantage of playing in the East have accelerated the Celtics’ growth. The Jazz also have positioned themselves for a nice future, although the competition in the West will keep them from matching Boston’s rise anywhere near as quickly.
Cleveland appears doomed in this series, even after ransacking Toronto in the East semifinals. James’ 42-point effort was insufficient in a 107-94 loss Tuesday, when Hill and Hood combined for five points (Korver scored 11). Along with Hayward and Joe Johnson, Hill and Hood were vital in the Jazz’s first-round playoff series win over the Los Angeles Clippers last year. The absence of those four players from this season’s playoff defeat of Oklahoma City illustrated how the Jazz have continued to remake themselves, five years after Lindsey’s reconstruction started.
The Jazz almost have broken even in these five years. Counting the initial 25-57 season, they’ve gone 202-208. Snyder didn’t have to endure that phase, so his NBA winning percentage (.540) is actually better than Stevens’ (.539).
Stevens will reach the NBA Finals first, though. That’s partly due to geography, as well as math.