The NBA Playoffs are in full gear. This is the time everyone calls, “the REAL season.” Rotations are shortened. The game slows down and gets tougher. Players flip a switch and find that extra gear, all for the chance to be the ones to raise the trophy in the end.
The Playoffs are also the time when fans are more engaged. Fans also bring their A-games. Whether it’s through analysis, memes or straight-up fanaticism, there’s always something to see outside the game.
That’s why SLAM PH is telling the stories of several playoff teams through the lens of some of their loyal Filipino fans. Distance, background and nationality don’t matter when it comes to NBA Playoff basketball. These Pinoy fans speak up and give their honest outlook for their respective teams in this year’s Playoffs.
It was love at first sight.
Back in 2003, Joseph and the Banaag family went on a vacation to Boston. Their arrival coincided with the beginning of the NBA Playoffs, so they decided to catch a Celtics game in their first-round battle against the Indiana Pacers, who were headlined by Jermaine O’Neal and proud Filipino Father Ron Artest, known now as Metta World Peace. In his first taste of live NBA action, Joseph was immediately captivated by a young Paul Pierce –– who scorched the Pacers with 40-points in Game 1 of that series.
Witnessing Pierce wax the Pacers live in person sparked his interest towards the Celtics. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 that his diehard Celtics fandom began.
“That was the first season I really watched, because I was a kid pa noon back in my first Celtics game,” explained Joseph, who was only five-years-old back in 2003. “Like most Celtics fans in the Philippines, I really started being diehard fan after 07-08.”
Renz Espanol was one of those who hopped on the bandwagon during the Celtics’ 2008 championship run. Like Joseph, a Paul Pierce performance –– specifically the game where he dropped 41 on the Cavs in Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference semis –– ignited his Celtics fandom.
“When they played the Cavs in Game 7, they almost lost so Pierce had to go tit-for-tat with LeBron [James],” said Renz. “As a kid, I wasn’t really fast, I wasn’t athletic. Pierce also didn’t seem quick, didn’t seem fast –– he was smart and he knew how to pick his spots. That’s what I liked about him.”
Renz and Joseph, two of my good college buddies, are also two of the biggest Celtics fan I know. Unlike many NBA fandoms in this decade (prayers up for my miserable Suns and Knicks fans out there), they have been blessed with success since the inception of their fandom. If you though the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a consistent franchise since 2008, take a look the Celtics’ track-record since the first Iron Man film: a title, two NBA Finals berths, five Eastern Conference Finals appearances, and 11 trips to the playoffs. Only the immortal Spurs come close.
But as spoiled as Joseph and Renz have been, they haven’t been able to root for a true championship-contender team ever since their Big Four disbanded almost a decade ago –– until this season. After they pushed LeBron to the brink in their incredible run to the 2018 East Finals, the ensuing campaign was shaping up to be the most promising ever since the greatest post-game speech in NBA history.
Many predicted the team to have the best record in the NBA and reach the finals. The injury returnees (Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward), anticipated jumps from their young guns (Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown), and a deep bench cemented their status as the best team, on paper, outside Oakland.
Instead, their 2018-2019 season was mired with frustration. Their prized young wings didn’t blossom as expected. The lingering effects of Hayward’s injury had him masquerading as a role-player with a max contract. Al Horford, arguably their most important player, began showing signs of age. Irving had a wonderful individual season, but his questionable leadership and lack of defensive acumen didn’t help matters.
Renz and Joseph, like many Celtics supporters, were surprised at their lackluster regular season. But unlike many Celtics fans, Joseph believed that he had no reason to be mad. “They’re operating on an accelerated timeline,” Joseph said. “Sure, it’s disappointing for us, but I’m more than happy with the team right now.”
Renz had a prognosis for Boston’s disappointing season. “The Celtics misunderstood what it took to create chemistry,” he said. “It’s very logical that if your two best players are out and you take LeBron to a Game 7 and almost win, they should be better if you add the two best players back, right? But people forgot the egos, minutes, and touches part of it. People forgot that more talented players means more complications.”
Renz singled out Terry Rozier as the prime example of why development isn’t always linear. Replacing Kyrie in the starting lineup, Rozier exploded onto the scene with an incredible 2018 postseason, highlighted by a 26-point performance to eliminate the Bucks in Game 7 of the first round, followed by a 29-point outburst in their Game 1 drubbing of the Sixers in the East Semis –– all in a three-day span. But with Kyrie back this season, the only frightening thing about Scary Terry has been his field-goal percentage.
“When you play Kyrie, it eats at Terry Rozier’s minutes, so his development slows down, and he gets frustrated,” Renz said. “People have to understand that they’re young guys. You can’t just tell a young guy to be the guy but off the bench. He wants to be a star –– that’s what every kid wants to be.”
But with the regular season behind them, things have been looking up for the Celts.
They just completed a sweep of the Pacers, with Hayward finding his rhythm and Kyrie looking healthy and ready for a deep postseason run. Playoff Tatum is becoming a thing and Brown looks focused. Horford found a renewed energy in the Playoffs. In Game 1 of their second round match-up against the Bucks, he shut down the Greek Freak looking while remaining the calming presence of the Celtics defense. They boast the top-ranked defense in the postseason after the First Round.
Their success as of late begs the question: are things falling into place at the right time? Do the Celtics have what it takes to make the Finals?
Both agreed that winning the East isn’t a pipe dream.
“As an unbiased fan, I really do think that they have a chance. Beating the Bucks is going to be hard, but they can,” Joseph said.
“On, paper, the talent can’t be denied” Renz added. “But if they’re able to put it together at the right time, get hot, and really click, that gives them a chance.”
Even with the top-seeded team in the league standing in their way, the Celtics have the talent and winning tradition to advance past the Bucks. This is the Playoffs, after all. Petty regular season problems don’t matter when winning becomes the top priority.
Photos from the author and Getty Images