Despite losing countless key players to injury, the Boston Celtics defied all odds. After winning Game 7 on Saturday, they are headed to the second round.
On October 17, Gordon Hayward went down with a horrific ankle injury that ended his season. Then, on April 5, it was reported that Kyrie Irving would miss the entire postseason with a knee injury. But on April 28, the Boston Celtics beat the fully healthy Milwaukee Bucks to advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs.
At every turn, the basketball gods were trying to send the Celtics home. Whenever they seemed to get anything going, an injury would strike.
Even in Game 7, Jaylen Brown missed the entire second half with a hamstring injury. If Boston was going to get it done, they had to do it the hard way.
A team effort
And they did. Like in the regular season, everyone chipped in to win Game 7.
Marcus Morris, a spark plug all year, nailed a huge four point play.
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Shane Larkin, who was always ready if he had one day of rest or thirty, came in and made a few plays.
Semi Ojeleye played excellent defense against one of the top 5 players in the league. Without guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo for long stretches, and doing it well, the Celtics don’t win the series.
Aron Baynes pitched in with 8 points, including a hook shot to stop a Milwaukee run.
Marcus Smart, despite missing a month with a hand injury, came in and didn’t miss a beat. His energy and passion on defense saved the Celtics at a necessary time. Not only can he switch on to premier scorers, but he wants to. He wants to dive on the floor or draw a charge. His assist in Game 5 laying on the floor was no better symbol of what he brings to this team.
Al Horford, the most consistent guy on the roster, ran the offense all night. He finished with 26-8-3 and dozens of good decisions to set up easy baskets. On defense, serving as the anchor, he came up with a steal and a block. Without his veteran leadership, this team goes nowhere.
Jaylen Brown, even though he played just 16 minutes in Game 7, deserves tremendous amounts of credit.
Last year, he was a guy who stood in the corner and surprised fans when he scored a few baskets. This year, from summer league to the playoffs, he was a completely different and better player. After just one offseason, Brown looked like a future All-Star right from the first game. He took the ball to the hole, shot the three well, and continued to build on his defense. If he improves even half as much from Year 2 to 3, the rest of the NBA better watch out. Game 4 was no fluke.
Terry Rozier, who came into the season as a third string point guard, ended it as the clear starter. In a career that is still young, Rozier emerged as a point guard that can do almost everything. Shoot the three, finish at the hole, defend on the wing, jump sky high for rebounds, show up in the clutch. Scary Terry is no joke. Neither is filling in for Kyrie Irving, one of the best players in the league.
Jayson Tatum, in just his first year in the NBA, had the most on his shoulders. With Gordon Hayward out, his role went from fifth option/fringe starter/sixth man to everyday starter and first or second option. He didn’t blink. In fact, the only guys blinking were his defenders that couldn’t figure out why a 20-year old rookie is giving them buckets every night. In Game 7, he played the most minutes on the team (39) and did not disappoint. 20 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and a offense/defense sequence that should make C’s fans giddy for years to come. Tatum is for real.
The ultimate X factor
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However, the man who squeezed out all that talent and proved to be the ultimate deciding factor in the first round was Brad Stevens. All year, no one did more with less than the Celtics head coach.
Take LeBron James and Kevin Love off the Cavs, they win 25 games.
No DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry on the Raptors, they win 30 games.
Take Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid off the 76ers, they win 30 games.
No Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving in the lineup for 104 games, and they go 55-27 and win in the first round. Think about this: last year, with no starter missing significant time, the Celtics went 53-29. They improved this year.
At this point, it would be hard to argue that if the Celtics swapped coaches with any other team, they would be worse and the other with Brad Stevens would be better. Back in 2013, when Danny Ainge hired Stevens as the next Celtics coach, the entire future of the franchise changed for the better. Without him, there is no playoff experience in 2015 or 2016. There is no deep playoff run in 2017. The Celtics don’t come close to winning this first round series if not for the best coach in the league on their sideline.
Brad Stevens is the perfect coach for a team filled with no superstar (yet). Because of him, the roster was able to combine their powers and win in the playoffs. You can’t tell me any coach in the league does that better than him.
The All Together Celtics move on. With Philadelphia on the horizon, it doesn’t look like the best matchup. They have the better roster, more talent, and no injuries. Well, so did the Bucks. I’m not counting out the Boston Celtics until Brad Stevens or the entire team self-combusts. And the most important thing is they won’t doubt themselves either.