It’s been quite a while since I’ve contributed to CLNS. Too long really, but other projects and day-to-day life have kept me busy. More significantly though, while my interest in the Celtics and desire to opine publicly about the team have never really waned, the past 3-4 seasons have seemed like a prelude to something more meaningful. I’ve been hesitant to write about the evolving state of the franchise, because to be honest, it felt like writing a review of a dress rehearsal for a potential Broadway smash whose opening night was still weeks away.
Sunday night’s bittersweet conclusion to the 2017-18 season changed all that.
Celtics fans woke up today generally, and rightfully, disappointed that the team let a winnable game and unexpected trip to the NBA Finals slip through their fingers. A poorly-timed horrendous shooting night with a dash of uncharacteristic lack of discipline and execution down the stretch gave Lebron James the opening he needed to drag the rest of the Cavaliers to what is probably their last chance at another championship.
I’m no different.
Entering these playoffs, I convinced myself that we had no right to expect anything of this team. They had given all they had despite injury after injury to key player. Finally giving in to the pressure of the playoffs with a first round exit was nothing to be ashamed of in the long run.
Anything beyond that would just be gravy.
Then, they kept proving me wrong.
The shorthanded squad that Coach Brad Stevens ran out there displayed not only grit, determination and focus but also significantly more talent than most observers outside of Boston gave them credit for. In the first two rounds, they overcame three of the NBA’s chosen sons and totems to the idea that success in the NBA demands an initial sacrifice of culture, accountability and wins to the God of the Draft Lottery. In the Conference Finals, they battled down to the last 2 minutes of a Game 7 with the man who inspired that idea.
We already loved this team for the persistence and high IQ basketball they displayed all season and then the playoffs made us appreciate, excited for, and confident in what they could ultimately accomplish.
They fell short this year due largely to some self-inflicted wounds and it hurt. I’m sure it hurt them, more than it hurt us if that even seems possible. This was infinitely more painful than a solid shellacking, even in a Game 7, would have been.
Al Horford, the team’s foundation, goes into the offseason knowing that if he had managed to put together a fourth quarter similar to his first and second quarters, the outcome would have been different.
Marcus Smart, the team’s emotional leader, goes into the offseason knowing that if he had complemented his heady play with more focus on running the offense down the stretch, the Celtics might have scored more than 79 points.
Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown, whose unexpected performances were critical to success throughout the playoffs, go into the offseason knowing that if they had managed to shoot better than 3-22 from long distance, they might have buried the Cavs after the team shot out to a hot start.
Jayson Tatum, who blossomed right before our eyes in these playoffs, goes into the offseason knowing that if he had managed to finish a few more of his patented twisting/loping layups, the long scoreless stretches that kept Cleveland in the game might have been avoided.
Coach Brad Stevens, who garnered respect for keeping the team focused despite all that happened over the course of the season, goes into the offseason knowing that if he had been able to get the team to run more thoughtful offense down the stretch, that they could be preparing for the NBA Finals today.
These aren’t criticisms or complaints. They are lessons. Hard lessons no doubt but those are the most important kind.
A lot of the focus for Celtics fans looking forward will be on the returns of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and certainly, if healthy, those two will make the Celtics an even more formidable team next season. However, what the rest of the team, and their coach, have just been through is even more reason for optimism. Not the unexpected success they had. That was fun, but it won’t be nearly as important as what they learned about themselves and what it takes to reach the NBA Finals, by virtue of falling just short.
Most of the NBA talking heads will confidently tell you that building a championship team from the ground up means “playing it smart” and going through “The Process” of playing to lose so you can get a crack or two at the next Lebron James. The Celtics just demonstrated over the course of these playoffs, the value in trying to take on the man himself. Last night was a big step; a painful step, but a necessary and important one in becoming the team that they have been striving to be since Danny Ainge concluded that the Big Three era had run its course.
What we watched last night and what we were fortunate to watch throughout these playoffs is the real “Process’.
I can’t wait to see where it leads next season.
Will Danny Ainge Keep this Core Together?