The return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a team that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals has put the Celtics in the role of favorite to get to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
BOSTON – LeBron James is now on the other side of the country, far away from the Eastern Conference that he dominated.
Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are no longer sitting on the sideline after dealing with season-ending injuries.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the young players selected No. 3 in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, are one year older and wiser after gaining valuable experience in a surprising postseason run.
Put together those three factors, and it is not hard to figure out why the 2018-19 Celtics are the consensus pick to win the Eastern Conference next spring and reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
James has moved on to the Los Angeles Lakers after winning eight straight titles in the East, including last season when he rallied the Cleveland Cavaliers from a 3-2 series deficit to overtake the Celtics.
Irving has shown no signs of dealing with lingering problems in his left knee, which needed two surgical procedures, forcing him to stop playing on March 11. Hayward, who suffered a gruesome opening-night injury last October, is still shaking off the rust but is not being held back by his repaired ankle and leg.
And the 20-year-old Tatum and the soon-to-be 22-year-old Brown, who took over major roles last season, give the Celtics two more weapons to go with Irving, Hayward and Al Horford.
Throw in a deep bench, and the Celtics have the edge over the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors in the East heading into Tuesday night’s season opener against the Sixers at the TD Garden.
The anticipation for what lies ahead has been building ever since that Sunday night last Memorial Day weekend when the Celtics just missed a date with the Golden State Warriors, and now the 141-day wait is almost over.
“We’re in a great situation,’’ said guard Terry Rozier, who returns to the bench after filling in for Irving. “I think we all know that. We don’t want to do anything to mess that up. Anything less than what we did (last season) is a failure. I think everybody is looking at it that way.
“We can be very special. We can win the whole thing.’’
The Celtics are well aware of the spot they are in with so much talent and have felt the expectations ever since the 2017-18 season ended with that Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers.
“We’re fortunate to have a team of this caliber. We should be grateful,’’ said forward Marcus Morris. “We know what we’ve got. We know how special we are.’’
Now it is up to coach Brad Stevens, about to begin his sixth season, to bring that talent all together and keep everyone happy with playing time that will have to be divided up.
Stevens has improved the Celtics in each season, going from 25 to 40 to 48 to 53 to 55 wins. He has taken the Celtics to two straight conference finals, and now the next step is getting into the NBA Finals and winning the franchise’s first title since 2008.
Stevens was not happy with the way his team played in going 1-3 during the preseason and knows they have to do all the hard work instead of resting on what happened last season.
“Human nature would suggest after a good season that you skip steps and you don’t control all the things that got you to where you went,’’ said Stevens. “But I think the fact that we were still smarting from that last loss (in Game 7) should alleviate some of that human nature.
“If we don’t play hard, the right way, together, then we’ll get beat and the game will be honest with us and we’ll have to go back to square one. If we embrace all that stuff, then I think we’ll have a really good year.
“We just need to be the best version of ourselves. We can’t skip steps. We can’t talk about being the favorite. We can’t talk about being in the mix. We can’t talk about being a playoff team. We have to go back and earn all that with our work all the way through.’’
There were expectations last season after Hayward signed as a free agent and Irving was acquired in a trade with the Cavaliers. Then Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his leg in the first quarter of opening night and everything change.
The silver lining was the play of Tatum and Brown, giving the Celtics hope not only for this season but for a bright future.
“You can’t teach experience,’’ said Hayward. “For them to have that playoff experience and have more responsibility with Kryie out, that’s great for our team. There’s going to be situations where somebody is going to be hurt again, somebody’s going to have a bad game and for us to have so many guys we can rely on, that’s huge for us as a team.
“That is probably why we have so much expectation on it and we’re ready for those challenges.’’
The Celtics will be tested right away with only four home games in the first 29 days of the season and nine on the road. There will some bumpy times as roles are figured out and Hayward and Irving get back in the groove.
But when everything gets smoothed out, the Celtics should be the leading contender to get to the Finals and play most likely the Warriors, who are going for a third straight title.
“We’ve earned … those expectations just because of the amount talent we have and what guys have done in this league,’’ said Irving. “Now we’ve just got to put it all together.’’
Said Horford: “I think that those expectations are there, but when you play for the Boston Celtics, I believe you’re always thinking winning a championship. That’s the reason I came here, to be able to be in these positions. Kyrie and Gordon know that and it’s something that we’re all looking forward to.’’
Jim Fenton may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JFenton_ent.