Let’s be clear: It’s not surprising that the Celtics have made it this far.
Rather, it’s surprising that the Celtics have made it this far despite what they’ve lost. After starting the season with sizable expectations, many declared it all over for the Celtics when Gordon Hayward went down early, and that notion resurfaced when Kyrie Irving went down late, and yet, here we are.
The Celtics have gone 10-4 in the playoffs, have beaten the Cavaliers by an average of 14 points a game in the Eastern Conference Finals, and are two wins away from the NBA Finals. The Celtics’ resilience has made them one of the most highly enjoyable Cinderella teams in recent memory.
There is plenty of praise to go around on the team. After not receiving one vote for Coach of the Year, Brad Stevens’ strategies have put the Celtics one step ahead at almost all times. After skeptics pegged him as “Average Al,” Al Horford has indisputably been one of the best players in the playoffs. The Celtics’ glue guys, including Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes, have all done an excellent job keeping the team afloat.
However, the main ingredient to the Celtics’ unexpected success in these playoffs has been the play of their highest draft picks in the last three years. Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum have all been integral to the Celtics’ extended run. What separates those three from the other four previously mentioned players is that those four have shown that they are capable of what they’ve been able to do in the past. The play of Rozier, Brown, and Tatum, on other hand, was not expected, and the Celtics would not be where they are right now without them.
The irony is that though Danny Ainge has hit bulls-eyes in three consecutive drafts, all three picks were surrounded by skepticism when they were originally taken by the team. It sounds strange now, but many questioned what Ainge was thinking when he took these three players.
When Adam Silver announced that the Celtics had selected the Louisville guard from Ohio, the collective response from Celtics fans (and the rest of the NBA) was, “Who?”
Before the draft, Rozier was projected to be a late first-round pick, which made the Celtics selecting him look like a reach, but what made the selection even more confusing was that the Celtics roster at the time didn’t really need another guard. The team had plenty of depth at guard with Smart, Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and even Evan Turner taking most of the minutes, so where was Rozier’s place on the team?
It turned out he didn’t have one. Rozier barely played his rookie season, but when he got time, he looked very raw. The following year, Rozier showed some promising albeit inconsistent flashes of brilliance. He had shown he was a capable defender and a quality rebounder for his size, but he struggled to find his groove offensively.
With Thomas and Bradley gone, Rozier’s role expanded even more this season. At the beginning of the year, Rozier had taken another reasonable step forward, but he still struggled with inconsistency. Leading up to January 29th, Rozier averaged 9.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 39 percent shooting including 35 percent from three. But then, Kyrie Irving took some time off to get a small procedure done on his knee, and Scary Terry was born.
After Terry took Kyrie’s spot in the starting lineup, his numbers skyrocketed. From January 31st to March 31st, Rozier averaged 16.4 points, 5 rebounds, and 4.1 assists on 41.7 percent shooting including 43.6 percent from three. The Terry Rozier that Danny Ainge believed he had was finally showing himself.
Terry has since kept the ball rolling in the playoffs, as he’s averaged 17.4 points, 5.6 assists, 5.5 rebounds while shooting 42 percent from the field including 37 percent from three. While some games have been better than others, Terry has done a phenomenal job as the team’s point guard all things considered.
Terry’s spectacular play may make him expendable once Kyrie comes back next season, but with all he’s done filling for Uncle Drew, he deserves to be a starter on a good team.
Many anticipated that, prior to the 2016 draft, the Celtics were going to trade the third overall pick that they had received from Brooklyn for a superstar. The team had been coming off an exciting 48-win campaign and they were going to have cap space for two max players that summer. Acquiring a superstar, like say Jimmy Butler, would have only added to their appeal.
It was soon announced that the Celtics had taken the California wing from Georgia, but no trade preceded Brown’s selection, which angered the masses. Celtics fans booed management, not because they disliked the pick, but because the Celtics didn’t package it for a superstar. Usually, a response as hateful as that would hurt a young players’ psyche coming into the league, but not Jaylen Brown.
While Brown’s role was limited in his rookie season, the potential was there. Brown had his stand-out games occasionally, but the Celtics didn’t rely on him much, which led to a not very notable post-season output.
There’s been plenty that’s already been said about how much Brown has improved this season, so the only other positive to add is that, much like Rozier, Brown has maintained his great play in the post-season, as he’s averaged 17.8 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 49.5 percent from the field including 42.3 percent from three. He’s done all of that while also nursing a hamstring injury in these playoffs.
When Brown was drafted, many knew he was already a world-class athlete, but they also knew of his iffy jumper. One former Celtic who possessed similar qualities was Jeff Green, a Celtic who showed flashes but never put it together, who Celtics fans feared Brown would become.
After two seasons, it is abundantly clear that Jaylen Brown basically is what many had hoped Jeff Green would be: A phenomenal two-way wing that has star potential written all over him.
When the Celtics won the lottery last year, many wondered what the backcourt would look like with Markelle Fultz and MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas running the show. Danny Ainge had different plans.
Many believed Ainge had lost his mind when he not only traded Fultz, who many believed was the lone surefire superstar in the draft, for Tatum, an offensively polished wing plagued with injury his freshman year; but also traded Fultz to their division rival Philadelphia, who was all set to start cashing in on the process.
But they were wrong. Tatum proved this season that Ainge not only saw the better player, but he also saw the Celtics’ next superstar. Tatum has exceeded all reasonable expectation this season, as he not only was one of the standouts from a loaded rookie class this season, but his advanced abilities despite his young age have seen him compared to all-time Celtics greats like Larry Bird.
Tatum showed what he was made of in wake of Hayward’s absence, as he averaged 13.9 points and 5 rebounds a game, which was a significant contribution to the Celtics’ run to the second seed, but it’s been his performance in the playoffs that has really shown the NBA world just how great this kid could be.
When Kyrie went down, many wondered how exactly the Celtics were going to get consistent scoring throughout the playoffs. The Celtics’ scoring throughout these playoffs has impressively been spread out among their guys, but Tatum has been their leading scorer, as he’s averaged 18.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.1 assists in the playoffs.
Tatum’s skills stood out against the 76ers, as he not only averaged 23.6 points a game on 52 percent shooting, but he made quality defenders like Ben Simmons and Robert Covington look like matadors. Tatum hasn’t been as dominant in the other series, but what he’s been able to do as a rookie has been historically impressive.
It should be reiterated that many believed the Celtics would be here at the start of the season, but for completely different reasons. Many believed Danny Ainge’s mastery in signing Gordon Hayward and trading for Kyrie Irving last summer was what would propel the Celtics to their first Finals berth since 2010, but instead, it’s been his impeccable drafting.
Many have kept saying if you think the Celtics are good now, just wait until next year, but thanks to these young guns, there’s no waiting necessary.
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