Stan Van Gundy has seen the Celtics several times in person this season from his perch at the scoring table as a color analyst for TNT, and plenty more to watch on TV from home.
He saw them during the frustrating and disjointed first half of the season, when no late lead seemed to be secure, and he saw them as they turned into a cohesive and relentless force in the second half.
And Van Gundy, who with play-by-play voice Brian Anderson called the first two games of the Celtics’ first-round series with the Nets and will have Game 4 on Monday night, wants to clarify something: He completely believes in this. turbocharged version of the Celtics, who took a 2-0 lead in Game 3 on Saturday night.
“I think people slept on it,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve been the best team in the East by a pretty decent margin in the last 2½ or three months of the season. If you look at the second half of the year, the last 41 games, they were No. 1 in the league offensively and No. 1 in the league defensively. And 41 games is a long time. We’re not talking, like, 10 games. They were absolutely dominant.
While so many things changed for the better – Jayson Tatum became a willing playmaker, Marcus Smart thrived as a true playmaker, Robert Williams became the defensive pivot – Van Gundy said it was improving the defense from solid to suffocating that triggered the U-turn.
“I watched them pretty early in the season and their defense was pretty good,” Van Gundy said. “They made more mistakes then because they change as much as anyone in the league. They put out the ball as well as on the ball. They had a few breakdowns. But they just kept getting better, to the point of making very few mistakes, and they have so many good defenders. And they didn’t even have Robert Williams, probably their best defenseman, for the first two games of this series. The only guy playing who hasn’t been an above average defender is Payton Pritchard, and he’s a badass, and if people attack him too much, they just don’t play him.
“And at the start of the attack, Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown held the ball a lot, doing a lot of one-on-ones. I don’t think it was that they wouldn’t pass. I know Marcus Smart made that comment earlier this year. I just think they were slow decision makers. They wanted to catch and hold. They didn’t run much either. They’re still not a great running team, but they’re capitalizing on their defense now and coming out in transition. Their pace quickened. Not just in the transition, but in the way they move the ball. Tatum in particular, I thought, has really become a faster decision maker. And they were pretty unlucky at first. They changed the things they needed to change, which is why they are where they are now.
Van Gundy marveled on the Game 2 broadcast at how the Celtics defense frustrated Nets scoring machine Kevin Durant.
“They’re the best team I’ve seen defending him,” Van Gundy said. “There are always five guys watching it. When it’s most obvious is when he takes the ball up high. The guy guarding him is right into him, and there’s someone on every elbow just waiting for him to move that way. If he does, they’re not faking it, they’re committing for the ball. So they always have him play in traffic no matter where he is on the field.
While Van Gundy was impressed with how the Celtics defended Durant, he was confused by how easily Kyrie Irving, who scored just 10 points in Game 2, was taken down.
“He wasn’t even involved,” Van Gundy said. “At the end of the day, he didn’t seem to want the ball at all. And even if Durant had a rough night, [the Nets] just kept going Durant, going Durant, going Durant. In the fourth quarter especially, Kyrie wasn’t even a part of what they were doing.
“I don’t know what was going on there. He left in the first trimester to get food because he was fasting. I don’t know if he had little energy or if the controversy of the first match and the fine took something away from him. I thought his defensive efforts were good, it’s not like he wasn’t trying on that side, but he didn’t assert himself at all on the offensive side after that amazing Game 1.”
With Celtics-Nets Game 3 airing on ESPN, Van Gundy and Anderson were moved to call Game 4 of the Raptors-76ers series on Saturday before returning to Celtics-Nets on Monday.
“I like doing different shows, doing different games,” Van Gundy said. “It’s easier when you stay on a streak, for sure, as far as preparation and all that, and you have a real idea of what’s going on. I like going to different places, but I I will watch all the games, whether I am there or not.
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