Their top two stars shelved, the undermanned Boston Celtics have defied (certain) prognosticators to once again reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, many predicted the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers would once again meet up in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The two teams might have taken a different route than expected, but the destination turned out to be the same. And here we are, with LeBron James once again standing in the way of the Celtics returning to the NBA Finals.
An offseason overhaul left Boston with only four returning players from last season’s run. The Cavs made changes as well, with the two teams swapping stars. Taking it one step further, the Cavs made major roster moves near the trade deadline.
The Celtics, meanwhile, could have easily cashed in the chips after injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Injuries took their toll up and down the depth chart. Writing off this season with a first-round playoff exit as a higher seed would have been disappointing but understandable.
Yet Boston fought on, even with the Cavs and Philadelphia 76ers lurking behind them in the standings. The Celtics battled on, displaying toughness and ingenuity to hold onto the second seed in the East.
Seemingly outgunned and outmanned — given the trendy pick of Philly advancing — the Celtics took care of business in five games.
Head coach Brad Stevens is one of the best in the game and this Celtics team has responded in kind. Stevens continues to extract maximum effort from all players on this roster, including youngsters like Semi Ojeleye and Shane Larkin.
Beauty in doing the little things
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Given how easy it would have been to pack things in, especially after Irving’s injury, the Celtics have shown a mental fortitude and grit. These aspects will not only serve the Celtics now, but will help strengthen them for future seasons.
All five starters scored in double figures in the series-clinching game against the 76ers. Boston has developed enough as a team in which a last-second shot and play could be drawn up for any of the seven players seeing the most minutes on the floor, ranging from Marcus Morris to Jayson Tatum.
Tatum has taken his game to new heights in the postseason. He’s averaging 18.8 points per game while shooting 46 percent from the field. Watching him play, one often forgets he’s finishing up his rookie season.
Jaylen Brown has been just as solid. Elevating his game during his second season, Brown was the leading scorer before a hamstring injury slowed him down. Now sitting at 16.9 ppg in the playoffs, Brown dropped 24 points on 10-13 (76.9 percent) shooting in the game 5 victory.
Yes, the Celtics are undermanned. Down two all-stars down and Daniel Theis, the Celtics are playing without three players who would have seen heavy minutes. Measure that against the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets — who can make complete line changes without too terrible of a drop-off — and the Celtics are definitely in the undermanned boat.
But before one of those teams can enter the picture comes another shot at James and the throne. Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier all remember last year’s exit. They have built the toughness, and passed it on to their teammates, to not let another bludgeoning occur, undermanned or not.