The storied history of the Boston Celtics doesn't filter our perceptions so much as distort them, the weight of those musty banners threatening to suffocate anyone taking the parquet in green below.
Playing for the franchise that begat Russell and Havlicek and Bird means accepting that nothing will ever be quite enough; that reaching, I dunno, three conference finals and an NBA Finals in six years somehow qualifies not only as failure, but proof a particular group lacks what it takes and maybe always will.
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The organization's mystique is so demanding that even the "ANYTHING'S POSSSSSIBBBBLLLEEE!" title of 2008 suffers ever so slightly for being a one-off. Watching Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen immediately coalesce was mesmerizing, but the Celtics are about dynasty and the second Big Three left a title or two on the table.
Let's pretend for a moment that Pierce and Garnett had joined forces five years earlier, though. Imagine the damage they could've wrought while spending their primes side-by-side instead of their early 30s.
Well say hello to the 2022-23 Celtics, because they might actually be able to answer that question.
In 24-year-old Jayson Tatum and 25-year-old Jaylen Brown, the Celtics boast the two most battle-tested young stars in the league. Brown has reached the conference finals in four of his six seasons, and he sat out one of the two misses with a broken wrist.
Tatum, meanwhile, is three for five, and last year the Celtics rode him like a pack mule to Game 6 of the Finals against Golden State and the incandescent Steph Curry. There's no shame in losing to that guy.
In any other city, we'd be celebrating the inexorable rise of the league's next great power. But in Boston, we've never really embraced the concept of walking before we run, so it's somehow a disappointment that the duo has yet to claim multiple championships despite starting their careers in an East ruled by LeBron James, and then wilting before the greatest NBA dynasty of this century.
That's objectively called a steady progression, and only one (admittedly difficult) step remains for Tatum and Brown: raise a banner of their own.
It's now clear the last five years were always building to this moment. The Celtics wowed like a comet behind Isaiah Thomas. They then tried to hack the process by importing Kyrie Irving, and the sage-scented wreckage he left behind obscured the ascent of Tatum and Brown.
Since the moment Danny Ainge secured consecutive No. 3 picks, the fate of the Celtics would always rest in their hands. Not Gordon Hayward's. Not Al Horford's. Sure as hell not Irving's.
Tatum's and Brown's. And so as they begin their sixth season together as consensus favorites to win it all, it's worth appreciating just how far they've come and just how good they can still be.
The two keyed last year's midseason transformation that took the team from underachievers to borderline unstoppable in January. They elevated their respective games by trusting those of their teammates, with the resulting flow on one end and menace on the other turning them from a hate-watch into must-see TV.
They entered the Finals as the clear favorites on paper, but alas, the game is played on hardwood and Golden State's experience ultimately ruled the day, be it the rugged middle linebacking of Draymond Green, the turn-back-the-clock shot-making of Klay Thompson, or the pure transcendence of Curry. The Celtics simply weren't ready.
Now they're as ready as they'll ever be, thanks to their two young stars. Tatum only scratched the surface of his potential as a playmaker and was still named First-Team all-NBA. Brown, for his occasional ball-handling misadventures, was halfway to a Finals MVP award before the C's ran out of gas.
This is their team and their time. The return of Khris Middleton in Milwaukee and the arrival of Donovan Mitchell in Cleveland means the East will be beastly. Out West, the Warriors aren't going anywhere.
But the Celtics are title favorites for a reason, and it's not history. It's because their two young stars have relentlessly improved over the last five years, from being slapped around by LeBron to giving Curry all he could handle.
So rather than decrying what they haven't yet accomplished, let's instead embrace a tantalizing possibility:
They're right on schedule.