The Celtics looked finished when Gordon Hayward went down in the season’s first game.
The Celtics looked finished when Kyrie Irving underwent season-ending surgery just before the playoffs.
The Celtics looked finished when they ran into the red-hot 76ers.
But, against all odds, Boston is returning to the Eastern Conference finals to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers for the second straight year.
The Celtics advance with a 4-1 series win over Philadelphia, culminating with a 114-112 win in Game 5 Wednesday. That was Boston’s third victory over the 76ers by five or fewer points, marking just the 10th time in NBA history a team wrapped up a best-of-seven series so quickly while winning so many games by so few points.
Game 5, which included 11 ties and 21 lead changes, exemplified the tight series. The Celtics blew a 12-point second-half lead then overcame a four-point deficit with a minute and a half left.
“We’ve got a lot of heart,” said Jayson Tatum, who led the Celtics with 25 points. “We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, no matter how young we are. Nobody expected us to be this far.”
Then asked how to slow LeBron, Tatum pleaded rookie.
Boston’s effort against the NBA’s best player will start with young wings Tatum and Jaylen Brown (who added 24 points in Game 5 tonight). Sprinkle in some Marcus Morris (Celtics-best +10 tonight in a telling number) and Al Horford (15 points, eight rebounds and five steals tonight).
Boston – which opens the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday – will be massive underdogs against the Cavs, but the Celtics have created enough reason for intrigue. That starts with Game 1 in Boston, where the Celtics are 7-0 in the playoffs.
Like Boston, Philadelphia has drawn attention with its postseason run.
Sure, losing in five games to the Irving-less, Hayward-less Celtics is disheartening. But just by making the second round, the 76ers are ahead of schedule.
Led by 24-year-old Joel Embiid (27 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and four blocks) and 21-year-old Ben Simmons (18 points, eight rebounds and six assists), Philadelphia has a bright future. Dario Saric (27 points, 10 rebounds and four assists) leads an impressive supporting cast. The 76ers will probably have the Nos. 10 and 26 picks in the upcoming draft plus max-ish cap space in free agency. The Process is paying off – even if the results this year couldn’t keep up with rapidly escalating expectations.
On the other hand, the resilient Celtics are leaving any expectations in the dust.