It was Oct. 17 when the Boston Celtics opened their season against the Cleveland Cavaliers. A little over five minutes later, the championship aspirations were sucked out of the Celtics’ community.
Gordon Hayward broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle, leaving Boston shell-shocked. As Kyrie Irving told A. Sherrod Blakely via NBC Sports Boston: “I think all hell broke loose for a little bit.”
Brad Stevens made adjustments accordingly, though, and kept the Celtics on track to make a long playoff run come April. But adversity hit Boston once more, this time in the form of point guard Kyrie Irving missing time and eventually being shut down for the season with lingering knee issues.
The hope from then on was that Boston could win a series of playoff basketball depending on how the seedings played out in the Eastern Conference.
Too much surprise, just a couple months later, Boston found itself minutes away from entering the NBA Finals; surpassing the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and nearly the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics were in the midst of a Cinderella Story, coming into each round of the postseason as underdogs based on the decimation of Boston’s roster throughout the season.
However, that did not stop them. The success of the Celtics in the 2017-18 playoffs surprised anyone watching.
But the reality of the situation is, the writing was on the wall the whole time for Boston to succeed even with adversity thrown in their direction.
I’ve watched the #NBA my whole life. I’ve covered the league for some years now.I have to say this year was one of the most special seasons to be part of. It started with a crazy offseason. When I think of the 2017-18 @celtics,I think the best word to describe them is #adversity.
— Raul Martinez (@RaulNBCBoston) May 28, 2018
Entering his third season in the NBA this past summer, Terry Rozier was in place to receive an increased role for Boston. In wake of the Celtics trading Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, the expectation was that Rozier would serve as a crucial piece off the bench for the Celtics now that the backcourt was no longer crowded.
Rozier had put an emphasis on two parts of his game during the 2017 offseason that proved to have an impact in 2017-18. “We put an emphasis on shooting and finishing, things like that,” Rozier told the Gloucester Daily Times. “Trying to take my game to another level. Trying to be more explosive.”
The opportunity to showcase the hard work he had put in over the summer came to fruition more than expected. Gordon Hayward’s injury in the season-opener allowed him to pick up more minutes early. Then later in the season, the absence of Kyrie Irving allowed Rozier to flourish. Boston’s need of a scorer at the point guard position in Brad Stevens’ system was tailor-made for a Rozier explosion.
With opportunity comes confidence, and with confidence comes production. Rozier, from mid-February until the end of the Celtics’ postseason run, produced in a way that was much needed for Boston.
After triple-double in first start, Terry Rozier said he'd let Kyrie Irving have his job back when he returns.
After 31 points in second start: "I haven’t changed my mind. Kyrie’s probably one of my biggest supporters outside of my family through this little process."
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) February 3, 2018
Then came Tatum, who slid into an increased role much earlier than anticipated because of injuries. He took advantage of the opportunity and made those watching forget that a rookie in the NBA is supposed to struggle and show signs of weakness on and off the court. Over the last month and a half of regular season basketball, Tatum averaged 17 points per game, doing such over a span of 17 games. Not to mention that he was also the leading scorer for the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tatum gave Boston not only a consistent scoring option in their starting rotation but displayed his ability to soak up every experience possible. He was able to develop rapidly over his first year in the NBA, avoiding the so-called “rookie wall” by taking every obstacle in stride and learning from each of them.
This explains why Danny Ainge gave up the first overall draft pick in 2017 to trade down and get Tatum with the third overall pick. Ainge has always credited Tatum for his intelligence and ability to evolve on the court, and his praises have been proven as fact in Year 1 of Tatum’s NBA career.
Though Tatum’s development has come quicker than expected, it should come as no surprise given that Stevens and the Celtics organization put him in the perfect situation to succeed.
They allowed him to see 30+ minutes a night but did not ask him to play a large role in the offense. Allowing to Tatum to work on his game early in the season created a perfect situation for the Celtics when he was asked to shoulder more of the workload in the remaining few months of the season.
Unfortunately, his opportunities came at the expense of injured players, but the situation proved to help Tatum blossom and earn crucial experience early in his career.
Last but certainly not least was second-year guard Jaylen Brown. Just days after getting knocked out of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017 the first-year guard asked Ainge to play in the summer league for the second year in a row. Instead of enjoying his first offseason, Brown was trying to get more minutes of basketball under his belt before he began his role as a starter for Boston in Year 2.
Racking up more mileage on the court not only helped Brown’s offensive game develop at a faster rate, but also allowed him to play with Tatum side-by-side and gain some chemistry in a system where both were primary offensive threats. This would later prove to be a great learning experience for both players in the later stages of the regular season and postseason when both were on the court as primary scoring options for the Celtics.
With Irving and Hayward no longer being of service late in the season, the Celtics desperately needed a locked-in 3-point shooter as the system requires such. Brown proved to be that piece to the puzzle and was one of the key reasons why it took until mid-May for this young team’s season to end.
When adversity hit the Celtics, it was natural for everyone to count them out. The pieces were in line for this team to succeed in the future, but they weren’t expected to win now.
Reality showed us that not only was this team in place to succeed in the future, but the future was now, and the winning would come much sooner than expected.
Based on the grit, toughness and talent shown by Boston’s roster this year, one can be reassured that adversity was nothing but an illusion for the 2017-18 Celtics squad.
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