Celtics

‘Wait until next year’ never sounded so good

But I sure do wish this one could have stayed a little longer.

Jayson Tatum Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum dunks the ball in the first half. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For much of this season if not most, this was the anticipatory postscript to any broad discussion of the remarkable 2017-18 Celtics:

“You think this is fun,’’ your buddy in the well-worn Pierce 34 t-shirt might say, “just wait until next year, when Hayward and Irving return!’’

Wait until next year. You said it. I said it. It would not shock me at all if some within the Celtics organization said it, perhaps even as far back as October when Gordon Hayward writhed on the Cavaliers court with his foot pointing in a direction that made your stomach want to turn inside out.

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Wait until next year. The words offered solace when the best-laid plans in the present seemed to shatter, even as the long-term blueprint remained intact.

Hayward, the All-Star forward and big-ticket free agent signing who was lost for the season before the first quarter of his first game as a Celtic was complete, will be back next year.

So too will Kyrie Irving, who dazzled like an evolved Isiah Thomas and performed like a top-five player in the league before he too was lost for the season due to injury in March.

Next year. That’s not so far away. Al Horford will still be in his prime. And Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will get more chances to grow in the veteran stars’ absence.

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Sure, next year, of course. That’s when the Celtics would be great.

But funny thing happened on the way to the future. Game by game, victory by victory, this year turned into a season to savor.

Next year? What’s the rush? This year is too much fun.

Which is why the ending is so disappointing.

This year should have lasted a few weeks longer.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday night at TD Garden, 87-79. After 101 games, the season is done.

The virtuoso James, the best basketball player these 40-something eyes have ever seen, scored 35 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished out 9 assists while also coaching and refereeing with his usual aplomb.

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There’s no shame in losing to The King, who has lifted a lineup of basketball peasants to the NBA Finals, his eighth straight appearance. But the cold truth is that the Celtics gave him too many gifts, too many golden bricks.

The Celtics built a 35-23 lead with 8 minutes remaining in the second quarter. The Garden was rocking. (Remember when we thought it was quiet? It’s not quiet.) The Cavs looked ready to start wobbling, for the supporting cast, minus the concussed Kevin Love, to start falling down around James.

Instead, the Cavs went on a 10-2 run, and trailed by just 4 at halftime. After a 13-point Celtics third quarter, the Cavs led by 5. Save for a spectacular performance from Tatum (24 points, one ferocious dunk in LeBron’s mug, and a convincing case that he already has arrived at stardom), the Celtics could not put the ball in the basket, especially from long distance.

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They shot 34 percent from the field, which qualifies as impressive compared to their 17.9 percent shooting (7 for 39) from 3-point range. Jaylen Brown was 2 for 12 from 3. Terry Rozier was a scary 0 for 10. Even Antoine Walker never did that.

James conquered them, sure. But the Celtics were complicit. Had they made shots that they are always happy to take and frequently made, they’d be watching television Monday night waiting to see if they’d be going to Houston or Oakland.

Instead, they pack up their stuff and lug away a hard lesson, one familiar even to James, Michael Jordan, and most of the game’s greatest names.

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Winning in May and June is not supposed to be easy, and it rarely is, even for legends in the making. “The pain,’’ Celtics coach Brad Stevens said afterward, ‘’is part of the path.’’

The Celtics could have won. They probably should have won. They played poorly on offense and they lost. That’s going to sting until next year is here.

But even now, in the raw aftermath, no one is forgetting the joy of the ride, even if the Celtics ended up getting dropped off short of their desired destination.

Watching them ascend while enduring such unrelenting attrition was a fulfilling experience, even if it was unfulfilling in the end. I’ll say it and I mean it: This is the most likable Celtics team I’ve seen among those that didn’t raise a banner.

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What a ride it was. The Celtics lost to the season opener to the Cavs the night they lost Hayward. They lost their next one to the Bucks. Then Stevens’s crew casually tore off 16 straight wins. They held the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for a decent chunk of the season. They won 55 games in the regular season and took the No. 2 seed.

That was just the warmup for the real fun. It was in the playoffs that they began to take on the don’t-you-dare-doubt-us vibe of some of our most unexpected champions in Boston – the 2001 Patriots, or the 2013 Red Sox, the ones that never saw an obstacle they couldn’t overcome.

They fended off otherworldly Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the first round, then stopped the Sixers hype train in Round 2.

They took a 3-2 lead on the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavs won Game 6 at home, as expected.

Then the Celtics came home and forgot how to shoot, LeBron remembered he’s LeBron, and there would be no Finals, just finality.

Wait until next year? I can’t wait for it to get here. But I sure do wish this one could have stayed a little longer.