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NBA playoffs 2021: The Boston Celtics might be stuck in the middle

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Harden's triple-double helps Nets advance to the second round (1:35)

James Harden drops a scorching 34 points, dishes 10 assists and grabs 10 rebounds to propel the Nets to a second-round matchup vs. the Bucks. (1:35)

For a few years the Boston Celtics floated on an enviable ride. Overachieving on the floor, they blissfully approached a fork in the road with both paths sunny and inviting to the horizon.

They had a growing roster of rising stars playing alongside some of the greatest free agent signings in team history. And there was this awesome collection of draft picks still ready to use -- the Celtics used to pass out an info sheet at offseason press conferences listing them like a venerable restaurant presenting its wine list.

And the franchise had smartly and covertly plucked a remarkable young coach from college, Brad Stevens, who had won a steady stream of praise.

So which would it be? Convert all those draft assets for a star forcing his way to the trade market via sign-and-trade? Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant or someone of this stature, naturally. Or let young players grow along with the stars who'd been acquired while using the draft picks to get even more young players?

Either option seemed like a plan for success.

That was then. Now the Celtics were just eliminated in the first round of playoffs by the Brooklyn Nets. After such a slog of a season, there was almost a relief it was over. That once rosy future suddenly has darker skies and a bumpier road.