Does Hall of Fame process need revamp?Celtics have already clinched, now it’s a ‘battle of the mind

April 8, 2024

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – APRIL 07: Kristaps Porzingis #8 of the Boston Celtics defends Jabari Walker #34 of the Portland Trail Blazers during the first quarter at the TD Garden on April 07, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. BOSTON — Kristaps Porziņģis watched last season’s NBA playoffs while in Latvia. Though he believes the honeydew melon tastes better in his home country, he didn’t want to be there during the basketball postseason. As nice as it was to relax after a long season, he wished he were still playing instead.“I’m thinking to myself like, ‘Of course, it’s nice to finish the season early, but there’s nothing else to do,’” Porziņģis recalled Sunday night. “What is there better to do than to play basketball? Nothing. Yeah, you can go for a little vacation. But this is what I love to do.”It has been too long since Porziņģis competed in the playoffs, but he’s closing in on his chance. After blocking five shots to help the Boston Celtics roll the Portland Trail Blazers 124-107, Porziņģis said he wants to use the end of the regular season to ramp up for the coming postseason run. These final games won’t impact the standings, but he wants to squeeze meaning out of them anyway. It’s time for him to turn it up.“I’m working hard on my legs and my stance,” Porziņģis said. “I’m being locked in defensively. In the postseason, there’s going to be more switching. I need to be at my best, at my peak defensively and offensively.”The Celtics saw a glimpse of his peak near the end of the second quarter Sunday night. After the Blazers cut a double-digit Celtics advantage to 4 points, Porziņģis showed off all of his gifts while dominating the paint with a flurry of great plays. He blocked three straight Portland shots, including two on the same possession. He scrambled into a closeout against Kris Murray in transition and was able to recover to shut down the wing. Porziņģis used physicality to stop Deandre Ayton near the rim, then turned to impressive lateral mobility to stick with Scoot Henderson on a switch. Throughout the sequence, Porziņģis displayed his unique combination of size and fluidity.The third block during the stretch might have been the best.After an Al Horford miss, Porziņģis worked to retreat in transition. He scrambled well enough to take away a potential 3-point attempt for Murray, who had already made two on the night. The closeout left Porziņģis in a dangerous position, but he recovered thanks partially to some strong help from Horford. Murray tried to shoot a lefty layup, but Porziņģis caught up to his man to swat away the offering. He’s not a lumbering center.He showed that again after switching to Henderson.Because Henderson still struggles as an outside shooter, Porziņģis was able to give the guard plenty of space. When Henderson started to make his move, Porziņģis broke out top-notch footwork to shadow the athletic guard. Porziņģis contested the shot well enough to help force an air ball. He finished the game with five blocks and three steals, along with 12 points and 10 rebounds.“All of us need to be locked in,” Porziņģis said. “Now in the regular season, as I’ve said, I’m starting to turn it up now heading into the postseason. We have to be at the top of our game before going on this one. And the stakes are high and we have to bring our A game every night.”The Celtics’ A game includes Porziņģis dominating at both ends of the court. He can do it. They know he can. They want him to do it all the time. After a recent win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jaylen Brown said he considers Porziņģis’ defense even more important than his offense. Brown said that when Porziņģis stays solid, puts his hands up and contests shots at the rim without taking any plays off, he takes the Celtics to another level. In what seemed to be a challenge for Porziņģis, Brown said the team encourages the center to do that more and more “because in the playoffs it can be one possession, two possessions that could determine the game.”“That’s going to be the game: defense,” Brown reiterated Sunday. “Obviously, offense is going to be able to carry you in moments, but being able to get stops and guarding teams and locking teams down is going to keep you in games when you’re not shooting the ball well. So not taking plays off, just being solid. Sometimes you don’t even have to gamble or be out of position, just be solid, and I think that will carry us far. So, that’s what we’re all hanging our hat on, that’s what I’ve been emphasizing from day one, since the start of the season. Defense, defense, defense. I think we’ve been a really good defensive team this year, and I think we have an opportunity to take it up a notch in the playoffs.”Porziņģis hasn’t appeared in the playoffs since 2021. On a roster loaded with postseason experience, he has just 10 games of it. He has reached the playoffs only twice. Each time, his team was eliminated in the first round. A torn meniscus limited him to only three games in a 2020 Mavericks series loss to the Clippers. The following year, he averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game as the Mavericks fell to the Clippers in seven games. Because of how little he has seen in the postseason, parts of the coming run will feel new to him. He wants to be as ready as he can for it anyway.The Celtics all do. They could have felt the urge to relax after clinching the NBA’s best record and home-court advantage, but Brown wants them to gain something from the regular season’s final days.“It’s a battle of the mind,” Brown said. “We already clinched. In a sense, we’ve done our job in the regular season. But now, you prepare your minds for the moments where it’s going to matter most. You don’t want to relax, you don’t want to get complacent, so sometimes even when you go out there you have to pretend like it’s a playoff game and it’s not. And it’s just a battle of how strong is your mind, your focus, and that’s what we’re challenging ourselves with now. To see the second group go out there and be able to do what they’re doing and grow in those moments and the first group continue to be able to stay locked into every possession, that’s just going to help us down the line as a team.”Porziņģis intends to finish the regular season strong. He wants to be at his best for the playoffs. As he prepares for the postseason, he has handed in many strong defensive efforts lately. He has averaged 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals over his last eight games with at least one block in each of those contests.Coach Joe Mazzulla has emphasized that Porziņģis’ impact extends beyond just his rim protection.“He’s an extremely versatile defender who can do multiple things,” Mazzulla said. “So as much as we talk a lot about how he can help us on the offensive end in critical moments, he’s shown he can help us on the defensive end. I think in the Philly game here (in Boston), he switched onto (Tyrese) Maxey, got a couple stops. So his defensive versatility is huge for us down the stretch.”Porziņģis won’t be in Latvia when the playoffs open in less than two weeks. He’ll be doing just what he wants while playing basketball on the biggest stage. He missed that over the last couple of years when he was forced into early vacations.“I don’t get burnt out, like, ‘Oh, I need rest,’” Porziņģis said. “I love basketball so much. Especially playing here, and playing in the postseason is going to be incredible. So I’m looking forward to that. Of course, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be tough physically and mentally. But if we want to achieve what we want to achieve, then it’s not going to be easy.”Jay King is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the Boston Celtics. He previously covered the team for MassLive for five years. He also co-hosts the “Anything Is Poddable” podcast.