BOSTON – The plan coming into this season was for the Celtics’ stars to be aligned for greatness that would give them a strong shot at being the last team standing.
But then life and injuries happened, which has forced Boston’s star-studded plans to be scrapped for most of this season and replaced with a star-by-committee approach that few outside the Celtics’ payroll thought would work.
And here they are in a winner-moves-on Game 7 with the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers with the victor advancing to the NBA Finals.
Boston's journey to this point, without Gordon Hayward for all but five minutes this season and without Kyrie Irving for this entire postseason run, has been an amazing ride, to say the least.
And while there have certainly been some ups and downs along the way, Boston hasn’t made any excuses all year for not having Irving and Hayward, around.
Celtics players will tell you one by one that being without their two best players has not been something that's concerned them in this postseason journey because it’s not something they can control.
And the team’s youth?
That, too, has been a topic of non-discussion most of this season; at least among the players and coaching staff.
“I’m sure we’ve slipped on this, but I’ve tried my best all year to try and not talk about their age,” said coach Brad Stevens, who added that he has been asked about it frequently throughout the course of the season. “It’s not about that. They’re really good basketball players. They’re really committed to each other. We all have a job to do and that’s go out and try to play the best we can. That’s regardless, Game 7, Game 1, a game in November, whatever the case may be...we need to be ready to play. We will be ready to play and our guys are looking forward to it.”
The Celtics' struggles in the playoffs on the road (the loss Friday night dropped them to 1-7; they're undefeated at home at 10-0) in the eyes of some might be because of the team's youth.
Marcus Smart isn't trying to hear that narrative.
"It's not because we're young," Smart said. "It's the playoffs and everything is harder."
The challenge becomes even greater when there's no one player they can turn to in close games to seal victories.
Jayson Tatum has had his moments, as well as Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Al Horford and Marcus Morris.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that as impressive as it has been to see them find ways to win, Game 6 served as a reminder of how daunting a task it becomes to close out a series when you don’t have a proven, battle-tested closer healthy enough to play.
Because of the points-by-committee setup, you never know who is going to get that opportunity to be the closer or, at a minimum, the guy who throws the late-game dagger to either position Boston to win or puts tremendous pressure on the opponent.
Brown acknowledged after Game 6 that he was positioned to be that guy and took the shot that would have cut Cleveland’s lead to just four with about four minutes to play.
But he missed the shot and with it went Boston’s chances of rallying for the victory – something they did better than any team in the NBA this season when facing double-digit deficits.
“That’s two games in a row on the road I missed that same shot,” said Brown, who still managed to score 27 points. “That’s going to really bug me. Yeah, it felt good. I have to make that.”
Tatum feels the same way about some of his misses.
Ditto for Rozier, Horford and Morris.
And there lies both the blessing and burden of having a team with lots of good players, but void of a definitive late-game closer.
The Cavaliers have one in LeBron James, a role he will embrace even more now that the Cavs have ruled Kevin Love (concussion protocol) out for tomorrow night’s game.
At this point, the Celtics aren’t overly concerned with who they have to turn to down the stretch.
Find a way to win.
That’s the only thing that matters now.