Tomase: When it comes to Celtics, no shame in saying (can't) wait 'til next year

John Tomase
May 23, 2018 - 10:07 am
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Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

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The Celtics might be the only conference finalists in NBA history whose fans kinda want to get this over with, because they can't wait for next year.

The C's sit just two wins away from the NBA Finals, and all we can think about is what they'll look like in the fall with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward joining a core that has already dispatched the Bucks and Sixers and turned the conference finals into a best-of-three with the mighty LeBron James.

We can sit here and pretend we're living and dying with every game, but whether it's at the hands of King James and the Cavs or Steph Curry and the Warriors, we know how this ends. The Celtics have already so far exceeded expectations, they're not just playing with house money, they're living in its house, swimming in its pool, and pounding its beer.

Their rotation effectively whittled to seven players, the Celtics have nonetheless compiled a 10-6 record in the playoffs, which is the inverse of how many times they've been favored. They might very well find a way to surprise us yet again on Wednesday night when they host the Cavs for Game 5 with a chance to take a 3-2 series lead.

But really, this squad is a one-off. The next time Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum play this featured a role in the postseason, Al Horford and Hayward will be elsewhere to make room for Brown and Tatum's max deals.

So we are left in this strange intermediate state where we hope they keep shocking us and reach the Finals, because what the hell, why not, but all the while recognizing the stakes don't actually feel that high. The Celtics team we're dying to see won't take the floor until next Halloween.

The last time an NBA team played with so little to lose might've been the 1995 Magic, who rode Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway to the Finals in just the franchise's sixth year of existence -- closing the old Garden along the way -- only to be wiped off the floor by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets.

That team ended up pining for a future that never came, because Shaq took his talents to Hollywood a year later after losing to the 72-win Bulls in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals. These Celtics are different.

Nothing they do today can be viewed through any prism except what it means for the future. Terry Rozier stepping up in Irving's absence? Once Irving returns he'll be anchoring the second unit. Jaylen Brown adding polish to an offensive game that's showing the explosiveness of a young Paul George, albeit on occasionally unsteady Bambi legs? Just wait until he's playing like in-his-prime Paul George. Jayson Tatum creating his own shot against rugged NBA veterans? This is only the beginning. Horford ditching the Average Al moniker when the games matter most? Imagine what impact he'll make with more help.

The Celtics really have nothing to lose. If Cleveland ends up sweeping four in a row after those heady opening games in Boston, it will require a Trumpian twisting of logic to argue the Celtics choked, not with Guerschon Yabusele seeing postseason minutes, Marcus Smart playing with a bad thumb, and Brown and Tatum still finding their way. LeBron James has beaten better teams by himself, and after a slow start he is once again in juggernaut mode.

What we really care about is next year, which can't arrive soon enough. Imagine a crunch time five of Irving, Hayward, Brown, Tatum, and Horford, with defensive stoppers Smart, Rozier, Marcus Morris and maybe Aron Baynes in reserve.

That team could win a title, Warriors be damned, and if it finds itself tied in the 2019 conference finals after losing two straight on the road, we'll be having a very different conversation.

Until then, the C's are basically racking up points in the bonus round, their accomplishments a pleasant surprise that won't distract us from the real fun that awaits.

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