The Boston Celtics bowed out of the NBA Playoffs Sunday afternoon after being swept in the opening round by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. With four minutes remaining, and the team down double digits, chants of “Let’s Go Celtics” rang so loudly through the TD Garden in Boston, that the announcers on television had to raise their voice to be heard on the broadcast. When Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart started scoring baskets and forcing turnovers, the score dropped to just a 6-point game and the crowd noise was almost deafening.
Historically, Boston has consisted of a loyal city of fans to the local teams up until 15 years ago. That is when all four major sport franchises in Massachusetts started winning championships, and the media and fan base started expecting a trophy season, and duck boat parades, every year. That is the only way to explain why the Boston Bruins have fired their General Manager, Peter Chiarelli and may still let go of head coach Claude Julian, after the team won a championship in 2010, went to another Stanley Cup Final in 2012, and made the playoffs in all but one of their eight years together. This year they missed the post season by one point and the reaction from the fans were if the team lost all 82 games. If the expectation of this city is to win every year, or fire everyone who didn’t make that happen, why then did the Boston Celtics get a standing ovation after loosing by 8 in their final game of an overall 40-46 season campaign?
Boston has long been a blue-collar city, made up of hard working people who appreciate grit and heart out of their teams. It’s the reason why Larry Bird, Cam Neely and Dustin Pedroia will always be loved here. This Boston Celtics team had no business finishing their season anywhere else but in the dungeon of the Eastern Conference. Granted the West was the stronger conference, finishing in 7th place with a roster that was turned over and changed constantly throughout the season, was nothing short of a miracle for Brad Stevens and his roster of cast offs. The fans saw them play every night with that same energy and enthusiasm and it was appreciated by the city, even in a loosing effort.
The media guide given out by the franchise before the season started is irrelevant. After December, it became a recyclable roster of what the team use to look like. In all, 26 players were involved in 13 trades throughout the season. It became so hard to follow the roster that fans did not know which jersey they could even wear to the games anymore. To their credit however, fans still went to the games. Most of them put on a throwback Bill Russell or Paul Pierce jersey anyways.
Starting in October, the Boston Celtics struggled to stay in games. With a young roster and a second year head coach, the team strained nightly to find an identity, aside from Rondo running up the court full speed and firing a no-look bounce pass to a teammate who fumbled it out of bounds on the handle. Then on December 18th, the team started to change. Rajon Rondo was traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Jae Crowder and Jameer Nelson. Nelson lasted less than a month until he was traded to the Denver Nuggets for Nate Robinson, who by the way, the Celtics released days later. On January 12th, the new face of the franchise Jeff Green was then traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for Tayshaun Prince and Austin Rivers. Rivers did not need to travel to Boston as he was traded 48 hours later, while Prince remained on the roster for 35 days until he was traded on February 19th to the Detroit Pistons for little known Gigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko. That was the day of the NBA Trade Deadline, where Boston also sent Marcus Thornton to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for second-string point guard Isaiah Thomas. It was exhausting to follow these transactions, as most of these players lasted only a few days, or sometimes just a month.
Rondo and Green, the only two Celtics who had jersey presence in the stands, were gone and the fans needed a new reason to attend the games. This is where the genius of Brad Stevens came in. I was extremely skeptical of this move when Danny Ainge brought him in to run the team two years ago. First, the team announced his signing at 5pm on a Friday afternoon, a true media dump where the story would get lost in the shuffle for at least 72 hours. It felt like he was brought in to run the team like a college coach would, where he would create a fun atmosphere and it would distract everyone until Ainge figured out the big moves he needed to make.
What no one counted on was Stevens turning the locker room into a contender. In the final two months of the season, the Celtics pulled together a 23-12 record, which was second best in the East. In that span they defeated the Cleveland twice, Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Toronto and Milwaukee. They weren’t just beating up on bad teams, they were taking away standing points from the best ones.
Most teams in the league spend the first few months of the season developing an identity. It took the Cleveland Cavaliers until the All-Star break to find theirs, yet the Boston Celtics found theirs in only a few weeks. Stevens had this team playing physical basketball where they had to out muscle teams for rebounds and out hustle opponents on fast breaks. It was a fun two months watching the best players in the game shake their heads in shock at how such an over-matched underdog came into the game and pulled off the upset. It happened 23 times since the All-Star break.
Jae Crowder, a cast off from Dallas, and Gigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko, a pair of benchwarmers from Detroit, became household names in Boston. This team was formed of guys just looking to have minutes in the league, yet the Celtics somehow pulled it together in a short period of time to win games with a starting five that lacked a number one scorer. They didn’t have a single player on their roster that would start on any of the playoff teams, yet they finished 7th in the East.
The playoffs were a quick trip for the Celtics and the scoreboards were lopsided, but for those who watched the games, this series was a true microcosm of the entire season. The team was down constantly, but never gave up. In Game 4, trailing by 21 points at the break, the Celtics battled on every play and brought the game to a 6 point Cavaliers’ lead with 30 seconds to go and the ball. If they had a true scorer on the team, they might have won the game. Instead Datome took a three that missed and the season was over.
Celtics fans knew beating the Cavaliers would be near impossible. LeBron James was 9-0 all time in his first round series and he was playing the best basketball on the planet. What fans wanted to see was the same heart and hustle they were use to seeing for the final two months of the regular season. The Boston Celtics did not disappoint in that. A 40-46 record is far from a stellar season, but for Brad Stevens to rally his roster when everyone thought they should tank the season, and make the playoffs, was a true testament to his motivational tactics as a coach. This ended up being one of the more exciting seasons to follow.
It will be a busy summer, as the Celtics have more draft picks than anyone else in the league, and you can expect when next season starts that this roster to look nothing like it does now, but with the one constant being Brad Stevens at the helm, the city of Boston will believe in this team. If they continue to play blue-collar basketball, expect to hear “Let’s Go Celtics” all of next season
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