By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics weren’t supposed to do a lot of things during the 2017-18 NBA season.
After losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, they weren’t supposed to be one of the league’s best teams. They proved that wrong by finishing the regular season as the two-seed in the Eastern Conference, touting the NBA’s best defense.
After losing Kyrie Irving late in the season, they weren’t supposed to make much noise in the playoffs. Some playoff teams were even tanking down the stretch, eager to face a depleted Boston squad in the opening round. How silly.
After needing seven games to win a rock fight with the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, the Celtics weren’t supposed to beat Philadelphia, on account of the 76ers winning 20 of their last 21 games heading into the matchup. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid had Philadelphia ahead of their rebuild schedule, and the Celtics were going to be a cakewalk for two of the NBA’s brightest young stars.
Yet here we are again, shaking our heads in amazement after Boston’s thrilling closeout victory over the 76ers on Wednesday night, wondering what else Brad Stevens can get out of this Celtics team. They beat Philadelphia in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight season, which the Celtics haven’t done in 30 years.
Despite their depleted roster, the Celtics notched their four wins over the 76ers in just about every way imaginable. After a surprising Game 1 blowout, they erased a 22-point deficit in their Game 2 victory. They won a wild and confetti-filled overtime affair in Philadelphia in Game 3, overcoming a five-point deficit in the extra session. And to close out the series, the Celtics battled back from being down four points with 90 seconds left in Game 5.
The kicker of it all is that the Celtics were underdogs in every game of the series. Even as they continued to win, the doubters were still out in full force. And there were the Celtics, proving them wrong again and again. Stevens’ squad continues to defy all the odds, doing so with a pair of young studs leading the way, Irving’s replacement playing out of his mind, and a veteran leader who now has even his most ardent haters giving him at least a golf clap of respect.
Jayson Tatum has gone from a 19-year-old rookie to the man this postseason, averaging 23.6 points against the 76ers and 18.3 points overall in the playoffs. He hit 53 percent of his shots against Philly, and has scored 20 or more in each of his last seven games. Even more impressive is how he’s doing it, showing off his variety of moves with a smooth stroke from downtown and some explosive moves to the basket. There have been very few instances where Tatum has looked like a rookie this postseason, aside from his inability to connect his facial hair.
There’s also Jaylen Brown, who looks pretty healthy after missing Game 1 against Philadelphia with a hamstring injury. Brown’s absence didn’t seem to matter in the series opener, but his presence is certainly an important part to Boston’s puzzle. He was back in the starting five on Wednesday night and put in 24 points off 10-for-13 shooting, including 3-for-4 from downtown (remember when people said he couldn’t shoot out of college?). His game is constantly evolving, and it’s wild to think what this kid can be in the near future.
Though Terry Rozier is no Kyrie Irving, he’s doing an incredible job filling the All-Star’s shoes. Rozier takes his healthy share of hero shots (like Kyrie), but he also makes quite a few of them (like Kyrie). He’s also not afraid to mix it up with anyone, whether it’s the guy he’s going head-to-head with or a seven-footer. Rozier is talking a big game, but he’s also putting up big performances for Boston. Like Tatum and Brown, he too is a star-in-the-making.
And then there’s Boston’s glue guy, Al Horford. He’s a man who gets bashed by many for not doing enough, despite the fact he does just about everything. He had the overtime winner in Game 3, and then led Boston’s charge late in Game 5. He had two key baskets in a late 10-0 run for the C’s, came up with a huge steal to help put Boston up by six, and finished his night with 15 points, eight rebounds and five steal. If Al is as average as his critics think, there are a lot of players in the league who would love to be that average.
The beauty of it all for Stevens and the Celtics is it doesn’t boil down to just one of those four players. Yes, they need at least one of those four mentioned to go off on a given night, or bad things will likely happen. But it could be any of them on any night. If not, they can call upon Marcus Smart to muck things up all over the court. They can ask Aron Baynes to bang bodies in the paint and he’s happy to do it, not giving two hoots about being posterized again and again. The Celtics are a machine with several different parts working in unison; a machine that has undergone several rebuilds over the course of the last sevens months yet still produces the same results, albeit in many different ways.
Now the Celtics have to prepare for life against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who just destroyed basketball in Canada with a four-game sweep of the top-seeded Raptors. The Celtics have home court, but the Cavs have LeBron, who is playing out of his mind once again. He’s got that crazy look in his eyes that he’ll do anything to get his team back into the Finals, and the Celtics are standing in his way.
Just about everyone will count Boston out in this upcoming series, and for good reason. The Celtics have climbed over every hill and mountain that’s been in their way, but chances are this fun journey is about to end. There’s no way this young and scrappy team can possibly keep it going, not against an opponent with the best player on the planet, right?
As we’ve been reminded of since mid-October, “no way” doesn’t exist in the Celtics’ vocabulary. Once again, no one expects them to do much, which is what has made them dangerous. They’ve been counted out so many times that it’s amazing it can still inspire them.
But it does, because they really don’t know any better. And throughout the process, they’ve had a whole lot of fun proving their doubters wrong.