NBA Playoffs: Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and a Boston Celtics team that continues to defy logic

Next man up. It's a time-honored cliché in the sports world that is, for the most part, bogus. To suggest that when a star player goes down, the "next man" can just step right into the same role and do the same things is nuts. It doesn't work that way in the real world. Unless, of course, you're the Boston Celtics, in which case no rules apply. 

No Kyrie Irving? No problem.

No Gordon Hayward? No problem. 

No Jaylen Brown? No problem. 

To even type this sentence feels like I'm writing some fairy tale Hollywood script that would never happen in real life, but it's true: The Celtics, playing without their two best players, and arguably their third-best player, and Daniel Theis for good measure, laid a 117-101 beating on the Philadelphia 76ers, perhaps the hottest team in basketball, to take a 1-0 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Monday. Show me the guy who says he saw that coming, and I'll show you a liar. 

What the Celtics are doing continues to defy logic. It's a credit to the deep, talented roster Danny Ainge has put together, and for the most part kept together, in the face of ever-circling bandits looking to raid his treasure chest. It's a credit to Brad Stevens, who might already be the best coach in a league that is stocked with premium coaches at the moment. But mostly, let's give these "next guys up" their due, because these dudes are flat-out balling. 

Terry Rozier, come on down. You just posted 29 points on 7 of 9 from downtown, and while nobody is ever going to make anyone forget about Irving, you're doing your level best to push the sting of his loss into the background for the time being. In fact, are we entirely sure Kyrie wasn't out there in a No. 12 disguise? Check this Uncle Drew dribbling display Rozier put on:

Rozier, to be fair, has been sensational all season and was very good against Milwaukee in the first round, but this was another level on Monday. The guy couldn't miss. He was hitting off the dribble, off the catch, pull-ups in transition, one-footers in the lane, creative finishes at the rim. He was dancing, man. Ball-on-a-string stuff. Just playing with the Sixers. 

Along with Jayson Tatum, who was his own kind of brilliant with 28 points, and Al Horford, who finished with 26, the Celtics saw a trio of players go for 25-plus in a playoff victory for the first time since 1986, when three guys you may have heard of -- Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson -- went for 30, 27 and 26 respectively. Do the math, and that's 83 combined points for Rozier, Tatum and Horford, which, just to put this in perspective, is four more points than the most points Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen ever combined for during their Boston tenure.  

Think about that. A backup point guard and a rookie just comprised two thirds of a trio that bested three Hall of Famers. It doesn't make sense on paper. None of this does. The Celtics, or any other team for that matter, shouldn't have any business winning at this rate, or certainly this level, with three players the caliber of Irving, Hayward and Brown in street clothes. The Cavs lose LeBron, it's curtains. The Warriors lose Curry and Durant? Forget about it. Harden and Paul go down in Houston? Finito. No DeRozan or Lowry for the Raptors? Thanks for coming. 

But this "next man up" thing is no joke in Boston. Every player on this team is included, empowered, relied upon. And, man, do they play hard. Marcus Smart just flat taking a rebound from Joel Embiid before going back up for the and-one is everything you need to know about this Celtics team: 

Come on, man. Embiid is a 7-foot man-child. Smart is 6-foot-4 with a surgically repaired thumb that is clearly still hurting him. Doesn't matter. You find yourself in a alley fight, you want Marcus Smart, irrationally confident jumper and all, on your side. Hell, you want anyone with any connection whatsoever to this organization on your side. Ainge. Stevens. The dude selling peanuts. Doesn't matter. The Celtics are the new Spurs. The minute you put that jersey on, you become your best version. 

Semi Odejele was drafted No. 37 overall, and now he's some kind of Giannis stopper? Draft experts said Tatum wasn't a strong defender? So much for that. Jaylen Brown was a bad pick at No. 3 overall? Good call there. Kyrie is too much of a 1-on-1 player to thrive in an egalitarian offense? Horford is overpaid? Smart's shooting will eventually catch them? They should have traded for Jimmy Butler or Paul George? They're hoarding too many draft picks? What's the next line of so-called logic going be: That the Celtics can't possibly go any farther in these playoffs without their three best payers? That the jig is surely about to be up? 

I'll admit, I've been a staunch purveyor of every one of these pearls of idiocy. Well, with the exception of Kyrie not fitting in. That dude fits anywhere in my book. But at one time or another, I've questioned every other part of this. I gave them a D for drafting Tatum for crying out loud. I thought they should've moved that pick for an established player. I'm surprised I haven't been fired yet. 

With that said, I still think the Sixers are going to win the series. 

Sincerely, Irwin M. Fletcher

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