John Tomase

Celtics' path to another banner continues to break in their favor

Unlike in past years, fortune has smiled on the Celtics so far this postseason.

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Usually, the path to the Finals is littered with landmines, rock slides, and maybe Mad Max biker gangs, too. Let down your guard for even a second, and it's over.

Not this year. The Celtics are getting the Yellow Brick Road treatment, their path brightened by rainbows and daisies and butterflies and frolicking ponies. After winning 64 games and obliterating their first two undermanned and overmatched opponents of the playoffs, they're ready to claim the first title of the Brown and Tatum era. That would be the case regardless of external circumstances.

But now? The route is wide open, and they've got a police escort.

Looking back, playing Miami without Jimmy Butler and Cleveland without Donovan Mitchell turned the first two rounds into glorified scrimmages. Looking ahead, if they get the Knicks, it would be without All-Star big man Julius Randle and with a potentially diminished Jalen Brunson, who's playing through a foot injury (not that it stopped him from dropping 44 the other night). If it's the Pacers, the Celtics will pit their historically great offense against the worst defense in the playoffs.

From there, the most likely matchup still feels like it will be the defending champions, but Denver isn't the team it was a year ago, not with Jamal Murray battling calf and elbow injuries that have sapped him of his marksmanship. He shot just 4 for 18 in a blowout Game 6 loss to the Wolves on Thursday night, and if he doesn't get right, it's hard to imagine even the great Nikola Jokic beating the Celtics by himself.

Otherwise, it might be the Mavericks, who hope to close out the No. 1 seed Thunder on Saturday. But Dallas superstar Luka Doncic is dealing with a litany of injuries, as well as a tendency to focus on the referees more than the opponent. His backcourt partner, Kyrie Irving, has already pulled one disappearing act in Boston as a member of the Nets, clearly impacted by the hostile crowd that will forever consider his departure traitorous. The Mavs made a couple of smart additions at the trade deadline, but the Celtics play a tougher brand of basketball and handled Dallas twice during the regular season.

As for defensively stout Minnesota or versatile OKC, they're young teams that would be in the NBA Finals ahead of schedule. If experience means anything, either would present the classic matchup of battle-tested vs. upstart. Advantage: Celtics.

We mention the path not to preemptively diminish what the Celtics hope to accomplish. A title is a title is a title, and the Celtics will still need to earn it. A case can be made that this parting of the Red Sea won't help them in a tough series, provided they ever get one. They've been building towards a championship basically since the day Danny Ainge fleeced the Nets for the picks that became Brown and Tatum, and their time is now.

As they head to their sixth Eastern Conference Finals in eight years, they've paid their dues. First they were blocked by LeBron James. Then they ran into Steph Curry at his most transcendent. The mystical Heat occasionally have had their number.

Now they're positioned to hold out game-changing big man Kristaps Porzingis until the Finals if they so choose, a luxury rarely afforded anyone in the playoffs. That's partly because they're a great team without him, but also because the path is clear.

They have no reason to apologize or apply any asterisks. Sometimes fortune breaks your way. The banner still hangs forever.

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