The Young And The Restless

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

It all feels pretty much normal now, doesn’t it? It’s the first week of May, and we have: LeBron treating the Air Canada Centre like a rental property; the Warriors strutting out to a 2-0 series lead over New Orleans, thanks in part to the return of Steph Curry and despite the ongoing dominance of Anthony Davis; the Wizards watching from home by the second round; and the Rockets having decimated the league’s best defensive team of the second half of the season (and subsequently falling in Game 2, calling into question Houston’s bona fides).

By most accounts, even after one of the most exciting first rounds in recent NBA playoff memory, everything is pretty much going according to plan[1]. Everything, that is, except for the other Eastern Conference Semifinal, featuring two young-ish teams boasting a wealth of talent and assets. It wouldn’t have been totally unreasonable to expect either the Philadelphia 76ers or the Boston Celtics to be in their current positions, but to have done it like this, each in their own, singular ways, is as impressive as it is foreboding.

Celtics fans would be excused if they had thought – as many of them did – that their team’s season ended within the first six minutes of the first regular season game back in October. The big free agent acquisition of last summer, Gordon Hayward, went down with a gruesome leg injury in the first half of the first quarter of that game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, leaving a trail of ruin and revised playoff seeding predictions. Sure, with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and many promising youngsters, the Celtics could make the playoffs, but a top seed would be in jeopardy. Championship aspirations were immediately erased.

After losing to the Cavs (by only three points, no less), Boston promptly rattled off a sixteen-game winning streak which included wins over the Warriors, the Raptors, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, as well as assorted flotsam, while maintaining a nearly +10 net rating. The Celtics went right on through with their plan to be a worthy adversary to LeBron James, and his ex-teammate, Kyrie Irving, was leading the way.

And then, after fireballing his way to the fringes of the MVP conversation, Irving went down in mid-March with a knee injury that eventually ruled him out for the rest of the season and the playoffs.  By then, Boston had won enough games to lock a playoff spot and all but guarantee a top seed in the East. To what end, though, when the biggest-name player left was Al Horford?

As it turns out, Al Horford is great at basketball. As it also turned out, the Celtics’ ridiculous collection of assets-turned-high draft picks is also pretty good, as rookie Jayson Tatum and fourth year wing Marcus Smart have turned their complementary skillsets into an unstoppable force.

The real breakout hero, though, especially in these playoffs, has been point guard Terry Rozier, who has kicked his scoring average up nearly eight points over the regular season and has scored at least 20 in five games this postseason, including in each of these last three. Rozier’s confidence stems in part from head coach Brad Stevens’ confidence in him to take the wheel following Irving’s shutdown, and he has risen to the occasion. In particular, his 26-point performance in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round was a star-turn.

The Celtics have showcased their team-first mentality, with Horford as the perfect talisman for the selfless style. On any given night, any player can step up, which is what any team hopes for in theory, but so few can reasonably deliver. Just ask the Thunder. Playing a variety of front court roles, Horford ambles his way from this side of the court to that, posting up and spotting up at will before unleashing jaw-dropping passes to inevitably wide-open teammates.

It is this distinct recipe that has led the Celtics to a surprising 2-0 lead over the Philadelphia 76ers, a team full of similar promise but via an entirely different means. However you choose to view The Process, and all it implies, it is clear that, for that team in that moment, after the Sixers took advantage of a broken system in the most coldly calculating way possible, they succeeded.

Even if Markelle Fultz never develops into anything – which, the guy is 19 years old, so mayyyyybe let’s give him a break for a little while? – the Sixers came out on top in their multi-year tank-o-rama. Dario Saric is mesmerizing at times, and Robert Covington – Robert Covington! – is finally being recognized as a switchblade ready to open rather than a guy getting stats[2] because he can in a pool of basura.

Sam Hinkie did, in fact, die for the sins of the draft lottery, and the Sixers have Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and a host of other pieces to show for it[3]. A first round playoff victory does not a championship contender make, but for such a young team, and for all of the implications of draft rights, Bird rights, contract extensions and the salary cap, the Sixers have already won more than they could’ve expected at this point. A 50-win season and a series victory, no matter the outcome against the Celtics, seem to have been worth all the trouble.

Both of these teams, and perhaps more accurately, their fans, are playing with house money at this point. If either loses at any time from now moving forward, they weren’t supposed to be here in the first place. If they keep winning? All the better ammunition with which to treat the promise of the future.

A reckoning may very well arrive for both of these teams before their time. It starts with Marcus Smart, who is approaching restricted free agency. Smart mostly can’t shoot, and that is a foundational problem in today’s NBA. What he and a few others[4] have proved, however, is that a player can make up for a lack of shooting by filling in any number of other boxes.

In a way, Smart is a perfect encapsulation of this series as a whole. Both teams recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and both coaches address them with creativity and spontaneity, the latter out of necessity as much as gut feeling. What happens in the future, with Smart’s contract and the teams’ respective roster situations, especially when Hayward and Irving return, is immaterial in the moment. Right now, stretching the limits of possibility is all that matters.

*     *     *

[1] Unless you’re Paul George, who had a really stellar, truly amazing and not-at-all maddening performance in what is likely his last game as “a Thunder,” and the erstwhile OK3.

[2] Seriously: he’s mostly the same player he’s been since around 2015, but now the narrative is so much different. Context is everything, and the paragraphs surrounding him contain full sentences instead of random onomatopoeia and highlighted Brett Brown curse words.

[3] And, notably, do not have Andrew Bynum, without whose trade The Process could never have kickstarted.

[4] Let’s hear it for the Rajon Rondo Renaissance!

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