Celtics defying all odds despite key injuries

Updated: May 18, 2018
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It was Oct. 17, Day 1 of the 2017-18 NBA season. The Boston Celtics took the court with a starting lineup that featured two of their newest stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They were facing the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that would likely stand in the way if they had any intention of making a deep postseason run.

Then it happened. Just 5 minutes, 15 seconds into his debut as a Celtic, Hayward went down with a gruesome ankle injury that would end his season.

Boston took its first blow to the face.

After dropping that game to Cleveland, and the next one to Milwaukee, uncertainty immediately entered the air as you could only wonder whether the Celtics would be a formidable team this season. They were structured to compete for a title, and in the blink of an eye they were down a star player.

But the Celtics came together, got into a groove and reeled off 16 straight victories, the longest win streak in NBA history after starting out 0-2 or worse.

Young players, like rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year swingman Jaylen Brown, started developing faster than expected. The team hung its hat on playing tight, stifling defense, an area head coach Brad Stevens focuses on heavily. And the veterans, Irving, Al Horford and Marcus Morris, took on more of a leadership role, allowing the inexperienced players to follow suit.

The Celtics owned the best record in the NBA for a time frame, had a deep bench, a strong supporting cast surrounding Irving, and were poised to be a team to be reckoned with as the playoffs approached.

Then bad luck struck again.

Irving, who was leading Boston in points and assists, suffered a knee injury in a loss to the Houston Rockets on March 3. It didn’t appear to be serious at the time, but the team would soon learn that he would also miss the rest of the season. Celtics fans, and NBA fans in general, were in shock. Boston went from being a team with all the right pieces, to an injury-plagued one that would limp its way into the postseason.

Irving attempted to return, but wound up playing his last game against the Indiana Pacers on March 11. The Celtics finished the regular season with a sub par record of 9-6 without Irving. And teams that were fighting for playoff positioning near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, were lining up for a chance to face the Celtics. They just appeared to be the easy out in a seven-game series.

But there was one thing teams were dismissing: the Celtics had a mastermind roaming the sideline.

Stevens readjusted his rotation, continued to instill confidence in the players that were healthy, and kept plugging away.

The Celtics finished with the No. 2 seed in the East and were matched up with the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. On paper, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, a supremely talented player who has emerged as a superstar in the league, in Milwaukee’s corner, it just felt like a series the Bucks would be favored in.

But these pesky Celtics weren’t going out that easily. They won their first two games at home, applied pressure on a young Bucks team (even though Boston is top-heavy with young players itself) and protected home court all the way through to win in seven. Tatum, Brown and Horford were stellar. However, there was an unsung hero who joined the party — Terry Rozier.

Rozier took over the starting point guard duties when Irving went down and instantly began to excel in that role. He was solid as a backup all season, but this gave him the opportunity to have freedom while out on the court and showcase his skills over extended minutes. He averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 assists in that series vs. Milwaukee, and was the engine that helped the Celtics get over the hump.

He outplayed Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe, who started a feud after stating he didn’t know “who the f—” Rozier was following a Game 2 loss. Well, in the midst of that series, “Scary Terry” became a household name. Boston fans have embraced his pit bull personality. And he has made it a near seamless transition in filling Irving’s shoes.

Stevens deserves credit there as well. He empowers all of his players, giving them the ammunition to go out and perform at a high level.

Marcus Smart, another important piece to Boston’s puzzle, missed the team’s final 15 games of the regular season with a wrist injury, as well as the first four contests against the Bucks. But his return has been essential to the Celtics’ success in the postseason. His do-whatever-it-takes mentality has also made him a fan favorite in Boston.

He was key in the Celtics’ second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, who defeated the Miami Heat in five games and were heavily favored to get by an undermanned Boston team. But, again, Stevens’ crew had other plans.

The Celtics won their first two home games, again, and jumped out to a 2-0 lead. Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and the young Sixers weren’t accustomed to playing from behind in an NBA playoff atmosphere, and it showed. The Celtics were the hungrier, steadier squad. They breezed by the Sixers, wrapping that series up in five games.

LeBron James was on the other side of the bracket putting on a heroic show in Round 2 vs. the Toronto Raptors. His Cavs swept the top seed in the conference, which led to Toronto firing its head coach, Dwane Casey, and were looking poised to make a fourth straight trip to the Finals.

Especially with a matchup against the Celtics pending, without Irving, and without Hayward. I mean, the only way Boston would have a shot against LeBron would be at full strength … right?

Well, in the words of Chris Berman, “that’s why they play the game!”

The Celtics have pounced on the Cavs, again starting the series off with two home wins. Tatum and Brown are maturing right in front of our eyes, thriving every minute they’re on the court. Tatum, who was the best rookie in the Philadelphia series — even over Simmons, who will likely win at least a share of the Rookie of the Year award — continues to excel. He leads the Celtics in scoring in the postseason, putting up 18.1 points per game. And he averaged 23.6 against the Sixers.

His smooth, Grant Hill style of play has been extremely impressive. There are no signs of back down in his DNA. Even on an Eastern Conference finals stage, going up against a LeBron-led team.

The same can be said for Brown, who is the Celtics’ second-leading scorer in the playoffs at 17.8 points. He plays like a seasoned veteran, on both ends of the court. He’s slowly transforming into one of the top two-way players in the NBA.

Boston knows that dethroning LeBron isn’t an easy task. He’s reached the Finals in each of the past seven years. So the team, even at its young age, is aware that the series is far from over. But as Brown put it during an interview alongside Rozier and Tatum with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, the Celtics are “just young enough to not care.” They aren’t afraid of LeBron, and the tenacity and aggressiveness they’ve played with during this series against Cleveland has proven that.

The mission isn’t complete yet, but the Celtics are just two wins away from advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo did it in 2010.

Injuries won’t stop them. Doubt won’t stop them. Inexperience won’t stop them. They aren’t making excuses.

To all those who continue to count them out, Brown has a message for you: “Just keep doing it, because it’s working for us.”

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