When it was announced Kyrie Irving would miss the rest of the season because of his injured knee, the expectations for a deep playoff run disappeared. Sure, the road to the Eastern Conference Finals was something you thought the Celtics could navigate. But beating Philly in five games? Going up 2-0 on the Cavs? No one saw this coming.
It's been such a thrill too to watch the growth and emergence of the young stars for Boston. Terry Rozier has burst onto the scene in the role of "Scary Terry" and it's been a pleasant surprise. Heck, he's been so good, he made Drew Bledsoe relevant again! Jaylen Brown's made a quantum leap as a scorer in his second postseason run. Jayson Tatum? Absolute stud at age 20 who plays like he's 30.
I've had the opportunity to cover the last four playoff runs for the C's, including the last two to the East Finals. The feeling at TD Garden during this year's Game 1 against Cleveland compared to last year's was very different. After beating the Wizards in seven last Spring, realistic fans knew they were walking into TD Garden with little hope of their team challenging the mighty King James.
This year, after the way the Celtics have sent tremors through the basketball world, there's a belief in this squad. The crowd got louder and louder this past Sunday as Boston built its lead up to 26 at halftime! As the day went on, the belief grew stronger.
These C's have a swagger. Marcus Morris is Lex Luthor when it comes to defending LeBron James. He talks like it, too. He said after Game 1, "I'll tell my kids about this one day," after helping to hold the King to just 5-16 shooting. He understands the responsibility and is embracing it.
To me, Al Horford is the source of this team's confidence. You can tell how much his teammates, and even Brad Stevens, look at him as a leader. I loved the interview on TV after the Game 3 win in Philly, when Tatum came up behind Horford and yelled, "Playoff Al!" The young guys respect and feed off what he brings, and as you saw in the fourth quarter of Game 2 against the Cavs, no matter what "shoves" he takes, Horford is strong enough to keep pushing this team.
Danny Ainge has been quiet during this run. He was spotted in the back of the room during a recent postgame press conference, just observing what was being said. Even he must be looking at this and saying, "wow, we've got something here!" The brilliance of his moves putting together this team have led to where we are now.
Stevens himself has remained even-keeled. You don't see the coach celebrating or showing much emotion these days on the court or behind the scenes. His time spent at Patriots Training Camp last summer has shown him how a successful operation can be run. Put your players in the best positions for them to succeed, they'll believe in you & you'll win. Horford called Stevens "a genius" after a recent game, and sure, he's got quite the basketball mind. But really, what he's doing is coaching to the best of his ability, "doing his job," and it's paying off. This team has bought in on what Stevens is doing and we're all watching it play out.
We'll see what happens as the rest of the Cavaliers series plays out, but even if the C's don't get to the NBA Finals, this run has exceeded any expectations...or lack thereof! So enjoy it. This could be just the start of something really special.