Future is now for blossoming, young Boston Celtics

NBA.com Global on May 11, 2018 10:59 AM
Future is now for blossoming, young Boston Celtics
BOSTON, MA - MAY 9: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics goes to the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 9, 2018 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

BOSTON – The injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving have been reasons to doubt the Boston Celtics or look forward to next season, when the Celtics will be really good. Just wait until Hayward and Irving are healthy and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have developed.

The looking-forward-to-next-season mantra still rings true. The Celtics have an incredibly bright future. But the present looks pretty good too, because more than anything, the injuries to Hayward (lost in the first game of the season) and Irving (out since early March) have provided opportunities for Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier to develop at an accelerated pace.

And how quickly they've developed is a big reason why the Celtics are heading back to the Eastern Conference finals after a 114-112 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time).

After his team won its first-round series against the Miami Heat, Sixers coach Brett Brown spoke of how the playoffs would accelerate the learning curve for his young players.

"The team will learn in, I think, an expedited way," Brown said, "when you're in such a rigorous, competitive environment as the playoffs."

But the same applied to Brown and Tatum as well as Rozier -- a third-year player, but one who was never a starting point guard until two months ago. And when this series was over, Celtics coach Brad Stevens sounded a lot like Brown did two weeks ago.

"All these experiences are times three with this group," Stevens said. "We're getting an expedited learning curve. They're not getting 'play a little bit as a rookie and the next year play a little bit more.' It's like 'you're all playing a lot and let's figure it out on the fly.' "

So while we saw the Celtics have a much harder time getting out of the first round than the Sixers did, Stevens saw his team figure out how to deal with a long and disruptive defense. And in regard to applying lessons learned in the first round, the Celtics were the better young team in Round 2.

"In this series, we benefited from how hard the Milwaukee series was," Stevens said, "because we had to scratch, claw and fight just to get out of that thing. And we got killed on the road. It was hard to generate baskets because of their length and athleticism."

In the regular season, the Celtics scored just 99 points per 100 possessions (a rate worse than the worst offense in the league) over the 11 games they played against playoff teams without Irving. They've had some ugly performances in the postseason, including a rough stretch in the second half on Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time), but have scored 107 points per 100 possessions over their 12 playoff games. It was a given they'd be able to hold up defensively; this was the No. 1 defensive team in the regular season. But that they've found multiple ways to score is why the Celtics have been a surprise.

Rozier isn't Irving, but he does have some juice off the dribble, he's got plenty of confidence and he can shoot. In fact, he leads the postseason with 38 made three-pointers. Though he didn't have his best game on Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time), he made big plays on both ends of the floor and was the player who got this series started off right for the Celtics, scoring 29 points in Game 1.

Meanwhile, the two players that were supposed to take over a few years from now decided not to wait. Tatum and Brown, just 20 and 21 years old, respectively, led the Celtics with 25 and 24 points in Game 5. After seeing their offense disappear in Games 3 and 4, the Celtics found it again upon returning home.

Brown made 10 of his 13 shots. He went to work early, scoring six of the Celtics' first eight points, taking advantage of matchups against J.J. Redick (who he took into the post) and Dario Saric (who he took off the dribble). In the second half, he found space on the perimeter and drained five of his six shots from outside the paint, including all three of his three-point attempts. He has quickly become a complete offensive player, one with the Celtics' two highest scoring games (34 and 30 points) of the postseason.

"A lot of young players think they have it all figured out," Celtics big man Al Horford said when asked about Brown after Game 5. "They want to do things a certain way. Jaylen has that growth mind set. You see it in him and he keeps getting better. There's no surprise why we're in this position. If he and Tatum weren't growing as players, we couldn't have been at this point. It's a lot of credit to them."

Early in the season, Tatum benefited from getting his most of his touches against a rotating defense, which allowed him to shoot off the catch or attack openings that were already there. The rookie was excellent in that regard, but he didn't have to be the guy who created those openings for others. Six months later, the Celtics were running their offense through Tatum for large stretches of the conference semifinals and asking him to make pick-and-roll decisions against one of the best defensive teams in the league.

"It's a great feeling," Tatum said of the added responsibility. "You work all season to earn the trust of your teammates and coaching staff for moments like this."

And with less than two minutes to go on Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time), with the Sixers up four and the series threatening to return to Philadelphia for Game 6, the Celtics ran three straight possessions through Tatum. An isolation drive past Ben Simmons got him to the line for a pair of free throws. A drive away from Horford's screen produced an alley-oop dunk for the big man. And another drive around Simmons resulted in a tip-in from Marcus Smart that tied the score. A possession later, Tatum sneaked behind Simmons and Smart fed him for a layup that put the Celtics ahead for good with 22 seconds left.

Back in the fall, the rookie couldn't have envisioned having plays drawn up for him late in a playoff game.

"I didn't know what to expect going into the season," Tatum said. "Our team looked a lot different than it does today. I never would have imagined that would happen."

And when the Celtics announced that Irving would miss the entire postseason, few would have imagined that they would make it to the conference finals. But here they are, and they're not done yet.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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