The Celtics surprise run to the No1 seed and the Eastern Conference finals was more than any of their fans could realistically ask for. Now the real work begins
Theres a saying that sounds like an ancient bit of received wisdom but probably originates with the justly maligned Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail that goes everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldnt end. Like manyclichsthat only seem meaningful if you dont think about them too hard, it doesnt really apply it to real life but it works wonders when talking about sports. In sports, only one team or player is guaranteed a happy ending, while every other participants quest ends ends in a loss, usually a painful one that effectively invalidates all of the successes that brought them to that point.
There are exceptions though. Consider the 2016-17 Boston Celtics, whose season ended on Thursday with a 135-102 home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics never held a lead in the game, not even during its opening minutes, and were down by 20 points as early as the first quarter. Before half-time it became increasingly obvious that this would be their last game of the season. By any objective measure, it should have been a depressing, dispiriting end for the fans of the home team.
Yet it didnt feel that way at TD Garden, which had more the feeling of an appreciative wake than a funeral. For the most part, the fans, at least the ones loyal or navely optimistic enough to remain in the arena for most of the game, seemed to be keenly aware of the fact that these Celtics had gone as far as their talent could take them. Less than three seasons ago, they traded point guard Rajon Rondo, the last remaining starter from the 2008 championship team, to the Dallas Mavericks. The team, under new head coach Brad Stevens, was clearly signalling the beginning a long-term rebuilding process.
They were never supposed to be this good this soon. The Celtics went on a run immediately after trading for undersized guard Isaiah Thomas in 2015, leading to a completely unexpected playoff appearance just months after apparently punting on the season. The next year they finished in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and then managed to sign free agent Al Horford during the offseason.
They were supposed to be better this year, but only the most delusional optimists could have expected them to seize the No1 seed in the Eastern Conference without making a significant move before the deadline (thanks to an assist from the Cavaliers mounting indifference towards the regular season). After not getting past the first round in their last two postseason appearances, these Celtics made it to within one round of the NBA finals. Yes, the Cavaliers made quick work of them, but few seriously thought they would have much of a chance against the defending champs. Heck, they even managed to steal a game from Cleveland, on the road no less, something which none of their other opponents managed to do.
Now, maybe Boston could have been a bit more competitive in this series. Whenever a team falls short of a title, we can always play th what if game: What if the Celtics hung onto their 16-point lead in Game 4 and ended up tying the series two-all. What if Thomas came into the series fully healthy rather than severely hampered by the hip injury that eventually forced him to sit out the last three games of the season?
However, most reasonable fans realized, even before the series began, that it would take a series of miracles and/or unfortunate injuries to the other guys for this particular Celtics team to somehow beat the Cavaliers and make it to the championship round. I would like to think that the fans who chanted Lets go Celtics, something of a growing tradition at the Garden when fans sense that the end is near, and gave the team a standing ovation during the final futile minutes of the blowout loss, represented the majority of the fanbase who understood that this particular Celtics team went as far as they could possibly go, farther than most thought they would.
The downside to the Celtics successful season is that expectations are going to be much, much higher from here on out. The Celtics are no longer rebuilding. They clinched the best record in the East, made it to the conference finals and, thanks to the Brooklyn Nets, they have the top pick in the upcoming NBA draft. The Celtics have a fairly young team and one of the most respected coaches in the game. Should they lose four games to one to the Cavaliers, or some other Eastern Conference team next season, its not going to play as a feel-good story. Nor should it.
The Celtics are, in fact, about to face their biggest challenge of the Brad Stevens era. Theyre now at a crossroads, where general manager Danny Ainge and company have to decide what the next step should be. Do they try to put together a team that could legitimately threaten LeBron Jamess current seven-year streak of reaching the finals? Do they play it more conservatively and focus on acquiring potentially talented younger players over established All-Stars even at the cost of taking a step back next season or possibly beyond?
Staying put wont be an option either, even if it were the right course of action. The harsh economic realities of the NBA, along with potential positional overlap, will soon make it impossible for them to keep the core of this team together. Key players such as Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, maybe even current team MVP Thomas, could be suiting up for other teams in the near future, depending on who the Celtics can afford and what players they bring in either through the draft or free agency.
Thats maybe the most bittersweet part of the Lets go Celtics chants, these represented the last chance for fans to show their appreciation for this particular group of players, not a superstar among them, who were never meant to win a championship but absolutely won their respect.