PHILADELPHIA -- Can we talk about the talent thing? Coming into this Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Sixers were given the decided advantage over the Celtics — after all, they have one of the best young big men in the game in Joel Embiid and the presumptive Rookie of the Year in Ben Simmons.
There’s a reasonable case to be made that Embiid and Simmons were among the 20 best players in the league this season, regardless of their youth and inexperience. Add to that, Philly’s decisive first-round series victory over the Heat, during which Simmons and Embiid were the two best players on the floor, and expectations shot into the stratosphere.
“We’ve jumped into this in a quicker way than any of us would have guessed at the start of the year,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said after practice on Sunday. “We were all kind of hoping to make the playoffs. Then we got real greedy and wanted to win 50 games. Then we wanted homecourt. Then we wanted to beat Milwaukee and finish third. Then we have a great series against Miami and we win 4-1 so the table is set, the expectations are set, and you can’t redial that.”
No, you can’t. Brown can’t control expectations, and he’s made no effort to downplay them either. His relentlessly upbeat persona is as much a part of Philly’s dynamic as his two young stars. He hasn’t tried to put any limitations on them and it wouldn’t matter if he did, so why bother?
Yet, in the discussion surrounding this series, it seems like the Celtics players were given short shrift. Some of that is obviously due to the absence of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Their injuries recast the Celtics’ season from one of contention to one of growth and opportunity.
Some of the apparent talent disparity is also due to the struggle they had with Milwaukee in the first round. While the Sixers were rolling, the C’s were stretched to seven games, and the limits of their roster were evident by the insertion of unheralded Semi Ojeleye into the starting lineup.
Now that were here, with the Celtics holding a 3-0 series lead, it’s apparent that this isn’t just about Brad Stevens spreading magic coaching dust over his tattered band of plucky overachievers. This is a team with two top-3 picks from consecutive drafts, a fearless young point guard who is growing into a leading role, and a grown up All-Star in Al Horford.
The difference is that unlike the Sixers, the Celtics did not come into this season with designs on building around their young core. While Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown began the season as starters, with Hayward and Irving on hand their roles were supposed to be complementary.
Which is why it’s easy to forget that Tatum and Brown were both top-3 picks with future All-Star aspirations of their own. Tatum, in particular, has performed well beyond his years this postseason. His scoring has been sublime, and his ability to create offense adds a dimension that the Celtics lacked in previous seasons.
Jaylen Brown’s ceiling is impossible to know. He’s come so far, so fast that no one is really able to pinpoint with any clarity just what kind of player he’ll eventually become. What we can say with certainty is that he plays winning basketball and he does so with complete confidence in his abilities.
The revelation has been Terry Rozier, a third-year player who has emerged as a legitimate starting point guard. Considering he spent a chunk of his rookie season with the Maine Red Claws and most of his second season as a back-of-the-rotation player, his postseason emergence has been serendipitous for the Celtics.
It’s true that Rozier performed well during the regular season when he filled in for Irving, both in January and down the stretch. But no one — with the exception of the uber-confident Rozier — saw this coming.
Rozier’s star turn comes with all kinds of ramifications for the future of this Celtics team. He’s extension-eligible this summer, and the Celtics will also have to make a decision on Marcus Smart who will hit restricted free agency.
(While we’re here: Marcus Smart or Robert Covington? Aron Baynes or Amir Johnson? Marcus Morris or Ersan Ilyasova? Shane Larkin or T.J. McConnell? It’s hard to tip these one way or the other — these ancillary matchups have been relatively even.)
Irving, meanwhile, has one more year left on his deal before he can opt out of his contract. That’s a lot of guards looking to get paid, but it’s a problem that any team in the league would gladly accept.
What the Celtics have that the Sixers don’t at the moment is Horford. Cast somewhat dismissively as a secondary star throughout his career, Horford was the best player on the court in Games 5 and 7 of their first round series, a series that also featured Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s also been the most impactful player throughout this round.
Horford is the Celtics’ security blanket. Stevens can give him any assignment — offensively or defensively — and he knows that he can trust Horford to deliver on whatever is asked. Even with Irving and Hayward with the team, Horford’s gravitas extended throughout the locker room and on the court.
Philly’s dynamic is different. Their veteran is J.J. Redick, who is a wonderful player and a leader by example. But the leadership arc of the team points toward Embiid and Simmons, who are learning as they grow.
“As far as a single guy, no, they look at each other,” Brown said. “That’s not meant to be dismissive of any void of leadership. It’s just no one is clearly as anointed as Al [Horford] is. For J.J. to swoop in and have that stage, it’s a false environment for someone to come in and do that.
“My goal is to keep growing Ben and Joel and at some point Markelle (Fultz). That’s going to be their team. Trying to cultivate that leadership and that recognition that they need each other.”
None of this is meant to excuse the Sixers for being down 3-0 in this series. They were favorites for a reason and their inability hold on to leads in both Games 2 and 3 reinforced what had been a maddening habit earlier this season. They have only themselves to blame for their predicament.
Yet, it’s well past time to recognize what the Celtics have, as much as what they don’t. This is a very good team, playing its best basketball of the season. Their defense has also been a constant, no matter who’s been available.
As much as the Sixers have squandered their opportunity, the Celtics have made it their own. That’s more than coaching and its way more than luck and good fortune. That’s talent, and the C’s are loaded with emerging starpower.