INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Celtics 2018-19 regular season commenced last September the excitement of seeing Brad Stevens' starting lineup at full strength outweighed the likelihood of a trying season that was eventually bestowed upon the four-year head coach.
It didn't work out the way Stevens thought it would and after a 10-10 start to the first 20 games, he changed his starting lineup and hasn't gone back to it since. However, Friday night against the Pacers, it was Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown -- opening night's starting unit -- that closed out a pivotal 104-96 Game 3 victory against the Pacers, giving Boston a commanding 3-0 lead in its best-of-7 series.
When Stevens subbed in Jayson Tatum for Marcus Morris at the 5:45 mark of the fourth quarter with his team clinging onto a three-point lead, it turned out to be his final substitution of the night. Every player of the aforementioned lineup played a part in closing the door on the Pacers.
The Celtics' core was by far Stevens' strongest unit Friday night, a sign of better things to come for a group that -- despite the odds stacked against them -- is playing with one goal in mind, to win an NBA championship.
"I think that the confidence is at a very high level when we know what's capable of on the floor," Irving said after Friday's win. "As you saw down the stretch, everyone made big plays. There were little things in the grand scheme but they were big plays. An offensive rebound here, a tip-out here, getting back in transition -- those are all the things you need to do to really guarantee yourself a win. We understood that they were playing with a desperate mentality, they don't want to go down, 3-0.
"Game 4 is going to be even higher intensity. But this is a great stepping stone for us to continue to go after the big picture and that's keep getting closer and closer to 16 wins."In the beginning, it was difficult for this group to make the necessary sacrifices it needed in order to be successful. More talented doesn't always translate into more wins, a lesson Stevens and the Celtics learned throughout its underwhelming 49-win regular season.
However, all that is in the past. The postseason is what matters most and seeing how this team has evolved throughout the past seven months has opened up opportunities -- such as a first-round sweep -- no one could have foreseen one month ago.
"It just shows we've come a long way," Irving said. "Honestly, in terms of our maturity as a group. Just our mindset, whoever's on the floor, making sure that we're all giving each other confidence. We're all in the right spots, we're all doing little things in order to assure a win. When you have that type of camaraderie going into huddles, everyone's talking, everyone's feeling great and going out there and executing defensively and offensively, it makes it a lot easier.
"When you got that group that started off, and we started off pretty horribly this season, we just had time just to figure it out and now that the stakes are at its highest, the pressure, whatever you want to call it -- I feel like we're settling into who we really want to be, that's just an overall great team. Everyone's ready to play, it can be anyone's night, you just have to be ready to support that."
Photo used is courtesy of Getty Images