Tomase: Celtics keep finding a way, and who are we to bet against them at this point?

John Tomase
May 10, 2018 - 1:56 am
Jayson Tatum

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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Brad Stevens leaned against the wall and let himself slide to the floor. Tucked mostly out of sight in a hallway behind the TD Garden interview room, the Celtics coach sipped a bottle of water and chatted with his son and a team official while waiting for Sixers coach Brett Brown to finish explaining how his heavily favored club had come up short against the undermanned C's.

Free from prying eyes, and managing a fatigued smile, Stevens looked exhausted.

At roughly the same time, a row of players sat at their lockers with feet plunged into mop buckets full of ice water. From Al Horford to Marcus Smart to Jayson Tatum, they appeared spent.

A few minutes later, Jaylen Brown and Horford ascended the podium to discuss how they had dispatched the Sixers in five games. Horford leaned back, closed his eyes like someone leaving a cave to soak in the sun, and exhaled wearily. He had left every ounce on the floor.

From top to bottom, the Celtics had nothing left to give after Wednesday's raucous 114-112 victory. Left for dead after Gordon Hayward broke his ankle five minutes into the season, and then again when Kyrie Irving suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own five months later, the C's continue finding ways to thrive.

Next up: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals which Cleveland won in five relatively easy games. What's left of the Celtics should give The King all he can handle this time around, because why stop now?

"The most important thing our team can do tomorrow is go outside," Stevens said. "Get away from it for a day. Take a day off, take a deep breath. We're asking a lot of the seven guys that played a ton tonight. They're going to keep playing a ton."

This remarkable run was never supposed to happen. Best-case scenario entering the postseason? A first-round win over the Bucks. The Celtics secured that by defending their home court in seven games. Philly, which had won 20 of 21, boasted too much firepower, too much shooting, too much Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

The Celtics had other ideas, and the Sixers saluted them.

"Coming here from Miami was completely different," Embiid said. "I thought Miami was more physical, but the talent wasn't there like Boston has. A lot of people might underestimate them, but they're really good. You can't go into a series thinking it's going to be easy just because they're missing their two best players."

Added Simmons: "Coming into this building and arena, the fans are amazing here. They're loud. They talk a lot of (expletive) to you. On that basis, it's hard to play here."

The Celtics made Embiid work for every point in the series. They dared Simmons to shoot and he mostly declined. They stayed at home on Philly's 3-point shooters -- the club's deadliest weapon -- and rarely let the 3-seeds embark on the kind of run that might've given the young team confidence.

In the process, the Celtics added to their legacy of overachievement under Stevens, a trait of his teams that dates back to consecutive national championship games at Butler.

We thought the playoff squad of 2015 was improbable. Then we couldn't believe the top-five seed of 2016. When Isaiah Thomas led last year's club to the conference finals, we shook our heads in amazement.

But this? This is on another plane. "They fit Boston," Stevens said of his players, and he's right.

What's left in the tank for Cleveland remains to be seen. After surviving a first-round scare against the Pacers in seven games, the Cavs swept the Raptors into oblivion. James might be playing the best basketball of his career as he inches closer to Michael Jordan's throne.

The Celtics should be his easiest dismissal of the postseason. How hard could it be for the greatest player of this generation to beat a club starting its third-string point guard and giving major minutes to a 20-year-old rookie who was supposed to apprentice behind Hayward?

As the Sixers and Bucks can attest, incredibly hard. The Celtics have three days to recuperate before hosting Game 1 on Sunday, and based on their looks of complete exhaustion, they're going to need every second.

But if the Cavaliers don't already know this, they're going to learn it shortly: underestimating the Celtics ends very badly.

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