WALTHAM — The mood was bittersweet at the Celtics’ practice facility Monday.
Though Boston’s incredible postseason run exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations, except the team’s own, players and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge expressed disappointment in not being able to finish the job against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the conference finals.
“The further you go in the playoffs, the harder it is to lose,” Ainge said. “What was interesting about [Sunday’s] game was I felt like it was one of the playoff games we lost that we should have won. That’s going to eat at all of us for a while.”
But beneath the layer of sadness, there was a sense of a excitement for what’s to come. Injured teammates Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Daniel Theis are all expected to rejoin the team next season.
“It’s going to be one hell of a season,” guard Terry Rozier said of the upcoming year. “We’re not clicking just to come out here, just to be there, just to put on a jersey and just play in between the lines. We’re looking to win as many games as we can and put the whole league on notice.”
Here’s what we learned from this season:
Jayson Tatum is a star.
As if he hadn’t already established himself as “a superstar in the making,” Jayson Tatum’s performance throughout the playoffs showed his ceiling has no bounds. The rookie did it all, from sinking three-pointers to deflecting opponents’ passes to driving hard to the basket to dunking on LeBron James.
“Kid can play,” forward Marcus Morris said. “He doesn’t back down.”
— NBA (@NBA) May 28, 2018
As the Celtics’ leading scorer during the postseason, Tatum averaged 18.5 points per game in 19 starts. He tallied 351 total points to top the all-time playoff scoring list for players aged 20 years old or younger, surpassing the likes of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson. The 20-year-old also scored 20-plus points in seven straight contests to break Larry Bird’s record for most consecutive 20-point playoff games by a Celtics rookie.
“I learned I definitely belong in this league,” Tatum said.
During the offseason, Tatum said he will focus on getting stronger and working on his body. But the maturity and growth from his first field-goal attempt in the NBA — which was actually blocked by James — is not lost on him.
“It’s like night and day,” Tatum said, reflecting on how he’s changed from the team’s season opener against the Cavs to the conference finals. “The first time we played them, I was so nervous . . . I’m a lot more relaxed and calm.”
— NBA TV (@NBATV) October 18, 2017
Jaylen Brown only wants to continue improving.
Jaylen Brown isn’t satisfied with the strides he’s made between his first and second seasons. Though he improved in nearly every statistical category — most notably, shooting percentage from behind the arc — Brown said it’s “not enough.”
“I have to get better,” he said. “In my mind, I have no choice. Just like how I got better from last year to this year, I’m looking for the same type of improvement.”
During the playoffs, Brown averaged 18.0 points per game — up from both his regular-season average (14.5) and his previous postseason average (5.0). His confidence to take shots has noticeably grown, as he took full advantage of the opening to become one of the leaders of the team at 21 years old.
Even though he participated in the Celtics’ playoff run last season — his average minutes per game (12.6) was significantly lower compared to his average for this postseason (32.4) — Brown said he felt as though this year was his first true experience in the playoffs. He said he sees the opportunity for continual development as a silver lining to the abrupt ending.
“It’s humbling to get to a certain point and then lose,” he said. “It makes me want to get better. It makes me realize how much better I need to get. It’s encouraging. There’s always dual perspective when you look at stuff.”
Their lineup is going to be revamped.
The Celtics’ starting five for their regular-season opener: Brown, Irving, Hayward, Al Horford, and Tatum.
The Celtics’ starting five for their postseason finale: Aron Baynes, Brown, Horford, Rozier, and Tatum.
When Irving and Hayward return, Boston will likely revert to its original lineup from last year’s regular-season opener. Irving and Hayward will offer not only more scoring options but also more stability for the Celtics. Brown and Tatum, who both showed tremendous poise this past season, should benefit from the veterans’ play-making abilities — even if their own touches decrease.
Rozier averaged a team-high 86.4 touches per game during the playoffs, which, barring any new injuries, will not be happening next year. How he (and Marcus Morris, for that matter) fit into the lineup off the bench poses an interesting question for coach Brad Stevens. But Rozier said he is not concerned about the starting position.
“Kyrie Irving is Kyrie Irving,” he said. “I would never take nothing away from him. I’d never go out and try to step on no one’s toes. But I’m going to challenge him everyday and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m going to pick his brain everyday . . . I’m looking to make him work, and I know he’s going to make me work.”
Given the depth of the Celtics’ bench, Irving could average 30 or so minutes per start — which will facilitate maintenance and freshness. Regardless of how playing time (and the roster itself) shapes out, several players said they expect training camp to be a good time.
“It’s going to be very competitive,” Tatum said. “Obviously we have a lot of talent. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The Celtics are a better team with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Paul Pierce hit the nail on the head.
“Please believe it: They need Kyrie Irving,” Pierce said on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” before Game 3 between the Celtics and Cavs.
“It hasn’t really shown a lot yet,” he explained. “It’s going to show when it gets to maybe a Game 7 or that close game down the stretch where you need that go-to guy, somebody you can put the ball in their hands and, say, win us the game . . . We all know when it comes down to crunch time, you need a guy like Kyrie.”
The demise of the Celtics was quite similar to what Pierce laid out: They couldn’t make shots in Game 7 against the Cavs. Minds can run wild, however, with some arguing the postseason success without Irving and Hayward is enough reason for the Celtics to trade the two All-Stars. Ainge said he gets “a kick” out of the fact that people think the team doesn’t need the injured pair back.
“We need Gordon and Kyrie,” Ainge said. “We absolutely need them. If this playoff run and all the series of the playoffs didn’t show that, then I don’t know what does. We were able to win some games and we were able to fight through some tough battles, but we’re much, much better with Kyrie and Gordon.”
They may not be big, but there are going to be changes to the roster.
After bringing back just four returning players this season, Ainge said the team is not looking to make any sweeping changes this offseason. He referred to the potential moves as “a handful of tweaks.”
Boston’s list of unrestricted free agents include Baynes, Shane Larkin, and Greg Monroe, while Smart is the team’s lone restricted free agent. Several remaining players are, of course, available to be traded. The Celtics also hold the No. 27 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
“You never know what opportunities will present themselves,” Ainge said.
Adjustments to the roster don’t necessarily mean the team can’t replicate the culture next season, but it sounds like the group had something special this year — and not all will be back to experience it again. Such is life in NBA.
“I had a blast,” Brown said. “I had so much fun. The group I was playing with made it fun for me. They had the same type of mindset as me, and it was a pleasure. It was a true pleasure playing with the veterans that we had and our teammates. In this league, you hear stories that you don’t always get it like that. So I was appreciative.”
“Everyone on this team bought into the system,” Baynes added. “It’s tough to do at this level, have complete buy-in from every single guy on this roster. That’s something Brad was able to accomplish, Danny was able to accomplish. That’s something special.”
‘Nothing is promised.’
Baynes said he told the team about his experience with the 2013 Spurs, who like the Celtics, held a 3-2 series lead but couldn’t close out the Miami Heat in seven games. The Spurs, however, went on to win the title next season.
Like many of the players, Ainge said he is confident this loss will propel them. Boston is expected to be a force, or as Tracy McGrady put it, “the Golden State of the East.” As the expectations rise, the Celtics appear to understand advancing to the conference finals, let alone the Finals, is not a given.
“Nothing is promised,” Brown said. “Nobody in this league is going to give you nothing. No matter what we got and who you got, we got to come out and play the right way.”
“I think you can’t assume you will be in this position,” Horford added. “I think our message from the start of training camp next year is we need to build it back up. We’re just not going to start and be in this position. It’s not easy to get to this point. We’ll get back to work and embrace those challenges that come with the season.”