WALTHAM -- One day after LeBron James left the "Maybe The Boston Celtics Should Trade Kyrie Irving!" narrative flattened like roadkill in his wake, the team's top postseason scorer addressed the media and discussed the superstar he spent the past two months doing his best to replace.
"I can't wait until next year," Jayson Tatum said. "(Kyrie Irving) is one of the best players in the league. It was incredible watching him play, playing alongside of him and just learning from him each and every day."
The Celtics will be thrilled to watch Tatum -- who, after Monday's media availability and exit interviews, can no longer be classified as a rookie -- develop within their system. In the bleak days after Gordon Hayward's injury, the only silver lining people around the organization could come up with was how the additional reps might help Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who both showed enough promise to warrant starting on Opening Night despite their combined 40 years of age (at the time).
What they couldn't have expected was what happened: Those reps appear to have produced a pair of young stars. Brown's offseason work paid enormous, immediate dividends and turned him into a near-40 percent 3-point shooter who could defend 3.5 different positions and attack off the dribble. Meanwhile, Tatum shot 44 percent from three and became the team's go-to isolation scorer by the end of the year. Nobody could have guessed Tatum and Brown -- alongside Al Horford -- would lead the Celtics to within one brutally frustrating Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
"I think coming into the year, Jayson was probably projected to be a 20-25 minute per game guy off the bench, not put too much stress on a young kids' shoulders that early, let him come along slower," Danny Ainge said. "So he obviously exceeded those expectations with the opportunity with Gordon's injury. I think that he's just scratching the surface. He's got to get a lot better, both ends of the court. What I like about Jayson is he knows that. He will work to get better. We're excited about his future."
The question opposing defenses will need to face next season: How on earth do you stop this team? The Celtics were already either the best or the second-best defense in the league in 2017-18 (depending on which metric you use and how you feel about the Utah Jazz), while their offense sans Hayward and Irving often ground to a halt.
In the playoffs, the Celtics used pick-and-rolls and hand-off sets to create, target and attack mismatches, which Tatum in particular took to quickly. His ability to handle the ball against pressure, score at the rim and pull up both behind the arc and just inside it made him a devastating offensive option.
The Celtics' offense will grow and improve as players are added back into the system, but Irving will be able to take advantage of those mismatches to perhaps an even greater degree. He's one of the greatest in NBA history at two different attributes -- handling the ball and finishing around the rim -- and he combines those skills with a deadly 3-point shot and an efficient mid-range game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Irving shot a staggering 54 percent on long twos. Long twos are an inefficient shot because it's very difficult to shoot them at a 54 percent clip. If you can? Fire away.
Meanwhile (in case you forgot) Hayward is coming back as well. Horford's offensive game has never been more versatile. The list of offensive options that will be at Stevens' disposal should be capable of preventing anything like Game 7 from happening again (indeed, one major question the Celtics will have to answer is how they will ensure everyone gets the necessary touches within the offense).
Hypotheticals are impossible to truly project, although Boston's abysmal offense on Sunday would likely look a lot different with a guard in the lineup who can create whatever shot he wants at any time. But while the Celtics don't like to think about what would have happened if Irving had been available for the playoff run, that doesn't stop them from looking forward.
"Kyrie is an unbelievable player," Horford said on Monday. "You can't think about what could have been, but when he's with our team we're at another level. That's just the reality. We didn't have Kyrie now, but we can count on him moving forward."
For most of the season, the prevailing narrative was "Yeah, but just think about how good they will be next year." For a little more than a month, that narrative shifted to "Uh, wait a second, what could they do right now?"
The answer -- make it to within a game of the Finals before bowing out in disappointing fashion -- soured the end of a magical run. But the original narrative still exists, and once the Celtics shake off the pain of how close they came, the work of returning to that point and assuaging that pain will begin again.
"You can't assume you will be in this position," Horford said. "Our message from start of training camp next year is we need to build it back up. Not easy to get to this point, and we need to get back to work and embrace those challenges. Build it back up. We'll have a different group, we'll be back at full strength, and nothing will come easy. It's all about us building up and accepting the new roles."
Horford is right. It's not easy to get back to this point. But opponents are going to have a hard time stopping it.