The Boston Celtics finished the 2017-18 season with 66 wins and 35 losses, with it all ending tragically to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
To most NBA observers across the world, Boston’s latest loss will be just a footnote in NBA Playoffs history, adding their name to a list of victims LeBron James has crushed throughout his eight-year Eastern Conference reign. All of this can be proven true.
However, to Boston, and their fans, the pain of losing doesn’t even equal the sense of pride, confidence, and the overall strides they’ve made.
Because for 101 games, from October to May, the 2018 Boston Celtics truly believed they could beat anyone. They believed it after prized free agent signing Gordon Hayward snapped his leg in the season’s opening minutes. They believed it during the regular season. They believed it in this year’s playoffs, without the services of their two biggest stars, Kyrie Irving and Hayward.
And even when the seconds were ticking down on their memorable season last Sunday night – standing one win away from the NBA Finals – they still believed there was time for one more comeback.
That’s the mentality these Celtics showed everyone as early as the first quarter of the first game this season. Whether it was advancing past Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the first round, or derailing the up-and-coming 76ers in the second, Boston acted like they belonged in the playoffs among the best.
No matter the situation, no deficit and no individual player was too big and too insurmountable for them. All season, they were dealt with adversity head-on, from losing players to injury to lineup changes. These Celtics stood together as one until there was no time left.
“When adversity hit, this group always figured out a way. I think Coach Stevens always led the way,” Celtics’ Al Horford said following Boston’s Game 7 loss.
Perhaps it’s premature to grant the Celtics with so much optimism following a loss. But there is so much they can look back at when it’s all said and done.
They can first look at the cluster of young stars they have to build around for the future. This starts with Jayson Tatum, a 20-year-old who performed beyond his years in these playoffs, averaging 18.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, also leading the team in minutes. He proved to himself and the coaches that he’s a 3-level scorer who can create for himself while continuing to bring it on the defensive end.
Or how about Jaylen Brown? No one can forget his 34-point outburst in Game 4 in Milwaukee. Brown showed he’s possibly the most versatile defender on the team, an elite athlete that can kill mismatches in the post, and that he’s a legitimate shooter.
And then there’s Terry Rozier, who began the season as the ninth man and finished as a Boston folk hero next to Drew Bledsoe, as well as the starting point guard in the playoffs. These are all moments of postseason stardom that players with a decade of experience sometimes never attain, mind you, not ones barely into their 20s.
The Celtics head into the summer with a handful of difficult roster decisions to make. Aron Baynes and Shane Larkin are the only unrestricted free agents on their roster. In addition, Marcus Smart is a restricted free agent, and retaining him should be a priority to this team’s future chemistry. His market will be a forerunner for this free agent class where cap space is limited. Smart has already expressed interest in returning to Boston, stating that he loves the atmosphere the city holds.
Rozier is also eligible for an extension, but his market will likely spike due to his recent postseason performance. There’s a chance the opportunity to keep Rozier, regarding money and minutes, doesn’t materialize for Boston, though.
Regardless, these Celtics provided a glimpse to what the future holds. Throughout the season, Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and the rest of Boston’s brass kept saying that the stage was set to do something spectacular. As it turned it out, they came within a game of the sport’s ultimate showcase.
“It was a pretty incredible run by an incredible group of guys,” says Brad Stevens. “An absolute privilege to be around them every day.”
The path is painful, as Stevens noted after Game 7’s loss, but that doesn’t erase from the lessons they learned along the way.