Things were looking up for the Boston Celtics at the end of the 2016-17 season. The team had the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference and made it to the conference finals. In the offseason, they added two All-Stars, point guard Kyrie Irving and small forward Gordon Hayward, to the roster. All seemed set for them to have a shot to take down the LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017-18.
But then, everything changed. Just over five minutes into the opening game of the season, Hayward broke his foot when coming down from a lob. And on March 23, the team announced that point guard Kyrie Irving needed surgery due to a bacterial infection in his knee from a previous injury. Irving and Hayward would both be out for the season. And in losing them, it seemed, the Celtics also lost their chance to take down LeBron and the Cavs.
But this hasn't been the case. The Celtics made it to the NBA playoffs as the second seed. In the first round of the playoffs, they beat the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games. In the second round, they beat the Philadelphia 76ers in five games. And the Celtics have just taken the first two games against the Cavaliers at home in the Conference Finals. What can account for this unexpected success without their superstars? In large part, it’s due to three young players who have stepped up in a big way —Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Jayson Tatum— and the excellent decision-making of general manager Danny Ainge.
At last year’s draft, the Celtics traded down from the first pick to the third. Amid much criticism, they passed over Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, the two most highly touted prospects. Instead, they drafted Tatum, a small forward from Duke. This proved to be an excellent choice. As of May 15, Tatum leads the Celtics in playoff scoring with 18.1 points per game.
As with Tatum, few people expected Brown to be as good as he has proven to be. He joined the Celtics at the 2016 draft as the second-overall pick, behind Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, who went to the 76ers. When their teams met in the 2018 playoffs, Brown averaged 15.3 points per game to Simmons’ 14.4 points per game en route to a Celtics win. Brown has also led the Celtics in each of the first two games against the Cavs, averaging 23 points.
All of these picks were questioned by critics, but clearly, the Celtics’ front office had a plan in mind. Judging from the stats, they set out not to pick individual stars, but rather to build a team. Setting aside Irving and Hayward, the Celtics have six players that averaged at least 10 points per game in the regular season, and the same is true in the playoffs. In comparison, only four players on the defending champion Golden State Warriors averaged double digits in the regular season. For Cleveland, LeBron scored 42 of his team's 94 points. The Cavs are a star-driven team. When LeBron had a bad shooting night in Game 1, the Celtics crushed the Cavs by 25 points. The Celtics have built an incredibly deep team that still has room to grow, and the temporary loss of their All-Stars has allowed these young players to shine. Although they’ve won their first two playoff series, the Celtics still have to finish off the Cavs to get to the finals. Some think the Cavs will come back to defeat the Celtics. After all, in the past, LeBron has been too much to handle for teams without a proven superstar. But the Celtics have depth that the Cavs do not have.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. First, it was supposed to be Kyrie vs. LeBron, a battle between two superstars. And then, the Celtics weren’t supposed to be there at all. But here they are. And Scary Terry and the Celtics will have something to say about what happens next.
Photographs (from top): Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images (2)