Close your eyes for a second, and imagine the 76ers without Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Are they in the playoffs? Imagine the Cavaliers without LeBron James and Kevin Love, the Warriors without Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, the Jazz without Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the Rockets without James Harden and Chris Paul ... you get the picture.
Imagine any team in the NBA without its two best players and ask yourself: Would they have any chance of making the playoffs, let alone winning a playoff series? Now open your eyes and take a look at what the Celtics just done.
After defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 112-96 in Game 7 on Sunday, the Celtics are headed to the Eastern Conference semifinals despite being without the services of Gordon Hayward for the entire season, despite losing Kyrie Irving for the season on March 14 and despite Jaylen Brown, probably the third-best player in the organization, of Game 7 with a left hamstring injury. Remarkable.
How are they doing this? It starts with Brad Stevens, who is showered with praise at every turn and still feels underrated. The way he has brought Jayson Tatum along, putting him in positions to succeed all season before asking him to assume a more primary role in the playoffs. The way he has emboldened Marcus Smart. His steady influence over the development of Terry Rozier and Brown. The Celtics were supposed to drop off defensively after losing Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder and adding the defensively challenged Irving, but instead they were the league's No. 1 ranked defense for most of the season.
That's not to take anything away from the players, nearly every one of which is outperforming individual expectations, Brown has become a star. Tatum isn't far off. For most of the season Irving was a fringe MVP candidate, which only makes what they're doing without him more incredible. You're just not supposed to be able to survive in the NBA, let alone in the playoffs, without your two best players. Most teams would be done if they lost just their best player.
Yet again in this first-round series vs. Milwaukee, you could make a strong argument the Celtics were the ones on the wrong end of the talent gap. Giannis Antetokounmpo is at worst a top-10 player in the league and was the best player in the series by a mile, and in Game 5 it was Stevens' decision to go small and start Semi Odeleye -- Semi Odeleye! -- and that threw Giannis off just enough to steal Boston a win.
The Celtics have to win games with guts, execution, all the romantic tenets of fundamental basketball. Entering Sunday, they have the second-worst playoff offensive rating of any team still alive -- only the Cavs are worse. The defense hasn't been statistically great, either -- 11th in the playoffs and the worst of any team still alive. Even with Irving, the Celtics were prone to offensive lulls. Stevens noted it throughout the season. But they always just keep playing. People get hurt, they keep playing. Guys aren't making shots, they keep playing.
And here they are, still playing.
Game 1 against the Sixers is on Monday. The Celtics will have home-court advantage for as long as they can hold it, but they'll again be on the wrong end of the collective talent gap. Nobody is playing better than Philly right now. It has shooters everywhere and we know about Embiid and Simmons. Boston needs Brown to be healthy, or at least able to play, to have any chance at all, and we'll have to wait and see about his Game 1 status. Philly feels like an overwhelming favorite, but ruling Boston out feels like a mistake.
The Celtics have the length, in theory, to switch on a lot of Philly's perimeter actions, particularly all those dribble handoffs. Brown, Tatum and Ojeleye can reasonably match up with Simmons. Horford can draw Embiid away from the rim. But all of these are a bit of a stretch, and if you add them all up, and then factor in Boston's limited offense against Philly's often swarming defense, well, it is my opinion that this will be the end of the road for Boston.
But in a way, it's just the beginning. What Danny Ainge has put together here is the real story. Irving and Hayward presumably back next year healthy, Brown and Tatum on the cusp of stardom, role players everywhere, draft picks still in stow potential, players for another big-name addition given their trove of assets and the promise of perhaps the brightest future in the league.
When Ainge traded for Irving, he said it was because he fit the Celtics' timeline, which was another way of saying they were looking a few years down the road, and man, are they ever set up to be a monster on that timeline. This series we're about to see between the Sixers and Celtics feels like the beginning of a Bulls-PIstons-type Eastern rivalry for years to come. But don't tell Boston that right now. This team isn't wired to think ahead, and it's certainly not wired to ever think it's outmatched. The Celtics might be without Irving and Hayward, Brown might be limping into this matchup, but Boston feels it can win -- not next year, not two years from now, but right now. And given what we've seen from them all season in the face of as much adverse as any team has faced, who are we to say they're wrong?