BOSTON — The Boston Celtics have been mining possibility out of improbable odds throughout the 2017-2018 season.
A season filled with so much promise was jolted just five minutes into their season opener back in October when Gordon Hayward was lost for the year to a fractured ankle.
It looked to be derailed for sure when Marcus Smart suffered a torn ligament in his thumb in March, followed by Kyrie Irving being sidelined for the season a month later following a pair of knee surgeries.
Yet, after completing a 4-1 series win with their 114-112 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night, the Celtics are somehow back where no one — except maybe only them — believed they could be: headed to a second straight Eastern Conference final.
A rematch with Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James awaits them, but for a Celtics team that has had to trudge uphill throughout the season, still playing at this point of the postseason feels like reason to celebrate.
Coach Brad Stevens said this group has never stopped playing together despite all the challenges they've faced. It's a testament to a program they've been nurturing since he took over as coach five years ago.
"I always hoped we would get to a point where if things don't go our way, we're still extremely competitive because we have a kind of foundation in place," he said. "Things haven't always gone our way, but these guys are really talented, they're really tough, they fit Boston. And hopefully we keep playing well."
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Celtics are the first team in NBA history to reach the conference finals in back-to-back seasons, while returning only four players from one year to the next (Smart, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Terry Rozier). That are advancing to the Eastern Conference finals in consecutive seasons for the first time since doing so five straight times from 1984 to 1988.
Brown was reinserted back into the starting lineup Wednesday for the first time since he injured his right hamstring last round in Boston's Game 7 win over Milwaukee.
He made the most of it, combining with rookie Jayson Tatum to score 49 points on 18 of 28 shooting.
Brown said he was treating Wednesday's game like another Game 7.
"We didn't want to go back to Philly," he said. "We didn't want to keep building their momentum and it was good to get a close out game here on our home floor."
Tatum, who had the go-ahead layup in the closing seconds Wednesday, has helped fortify that quartet over the latter half of the season. Like Brown, he has become one of the go-to players on a reconfigured Celtics roster that in many ways is now being led by his youthful core.
He made his NBA debut against the Cavs back in October. He said he feels like a completely different player as he prepares to face them again.
"It's like night and day," he said. "I remember the first time we played them I was so nervous. But it's been 90 games since then. We've been through a lot. I'm a lot more relaxed and calm, but ready to go out there and play."
While the young players on Boston's rosters have been huge in Boston's success, Brown said the veteran leadership of Horford has been just as important in helping hold things together throughout the season.
Despite being surrounded by a group of 20-somethings, the 32-year-old "Playoff Al" has helped them all play well beyond their years.
But it hasn't just been talk. With 15 points and eight rebounds in Game 5, Horford has now scored in double figures in each of Boston's 12 games this postseason, including five double-doubles.
"We lean on our best, we lean on Al during those tough stretches, and he came up big for us," Brown said.
In five games this series, Tatum averaged 23.6 points while shooting 52.4 percent from the field. His scoring average is the second-highest by Boston rookie in a single playoff series. It trails only Tom Heinsohn, who averaged 24 points per game in 1957.
Tatum said he jammed his left thumb late in the game, but said it is OK. ... Reserve G Shane Larkin (left shoulder sprain), who sat out Wednesday's game, told reporters that an MRI revealed some issues. But he is going to work toward returning sometime against Cleveland.