Celtics

The Celtics Got Swept in the 2015 Playoffs … and Completely Won Us Over

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COMMENTARY

Shoot, I’m going to miss watching this Celtics team. Already do, actually, just a couple of days after the 2014-15 edition’s hard-fought but inevitable demise against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who outclassed them in pure talent but in no other way whatsoever.

Up against LeBron James’ Cavs, the Celtics never stopped battling. Never even considered it an option, really, which is how we became afflicted with this still-lingering mood of lamentation: the Celtics went 40-42 in the regular season, earned the seventh seed in a lousy Eastern Conference, were swept in the first round with an average margin of defeat of slightly more than nine points … and not only will we remember them well, we wish they didn’t slip in to the past tense so soon.

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Yeah, I know, I hear them too. Those haughty fans among us who take satisfaction and keepsakes only from championship seasons are snickering at us for …well, I suppose for appreciating and enjoying a team that came nowhere close to hanging Banner 18.

In this wildly successful era of Boston sports, expectations can be as high as the Garden rafters. Sometimes such a championship-or-bust mindset among a fan base is understandable. Justified, even. The Brady/Belichick Patriots set such a high standard every single season that when they don’t win the Super Bowl, it’s disappointing. It should be disappointing. But that reality also should not totally obscure the big picture: the Patriots have had a legitimate chance at winning the Lombardi Trophy pretty much every season since 2001.

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That is beyond remarkable. It’s unprecedented, a feat that should be nearly as appreciated as the exhilarating championships themselves. But I get why it cannot be. When excellence becomes the expectation, anything less than total fulfillment is a bummer. (When achieved, however, total fulfillment remains as exhilarating as ever.)

It’s funny, nearly 20 seasons after he bailed out as the Patriots coach, we still toss around Bill Parcells’s favorite aphorisms all the time around here. One that remains atop the Parcellsism charts: You are what your record says you are.

Potential lies to us all the time, Parcells is saying. The results never do. There’s nothing more honest about a team, no harder truth about its condition, than its won-lost record, so spare us the promises and excuses and if-onlys and coulda-beens. We’re not talking about what could have happened. We’re talking about what did.

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As a writer and a fan, I have to admit, catchy though it is, I’ve never much liked that particular Parcellsism. From the writer’s perspective, it’s an easily leaned-upon crutch, an excuse to avoid navigating the gray areas and digging for context and nuance. Hell, from the fan’s perspective, I’ve got a problem with that saying too, because much of the fun can be found within the context and nuance.

The regular-season record says the Celtics are 40-42 team. Mediocre. Nothing to give a rolling damn about. Forget that they collected 15 more victories this year than during the previous season … or that Brad Stevens established himself as the rare coach who has a legitimately positive impact tactically and mentally … or that general manager Danny Ainge stockpiled assets in the form of draft picks, cap room, and, most impressively, acquired unsung NBA talent such as Jae Crowder, Tyler Zeller, and Isaiah Thomas … or that they won 20 of 29 games down the stretch and were almost too good, for had they finished in the eighth spot rather than ascending to seventh, they very well might have tormented the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, a team with more victories but far less pure talent than the LeBron-led Cavaliers.

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Yeah, the Celtics were 40-42. Then they got swept in four straight. Those are truths, as the no-gray-area banner-or-bust crowd will point out. It would have been nice to take at least one from the Cavaliers, if only to get Stevens that first playoff win. But the compass is pointing north, and the progress is real and meant to be enjoyed.

So why not enjoy it? It was fun this year, especially down the stretch. And barring disaster, it’s only going to get better.

Stevens and Ainge form a genuine brain trust. Marcus Smart and Crowder, a restricted free agent who would have been so perfect on the New Big Three teams, are keepers, players who are easily envisioned as core contributors to a true contender. Zeller, though easily pushed around near the basket, has some uncommon skills. Jared Sullinger may be salvageable yet. Thomas is a joy when the jukes are working and the jumpers dropping. Avery Bradley is ever-dogged. Kelly Olynyk … well, OK, I’ve probably seen enough there too.

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There is a lack of star power at the moment, and the crucial offseason has begun for Ainge, who will wield the cap space and assets to try to acquire the necessary top-shelf talent. A little luck to accompany the design would also be a nice change of pace for this franchise.

The Celtics do require better players in certain spots — a big man who can contain the likes of Tristan Thompson and go-to scorer who is not a 5-foot-9-inch shoot-first guard are certain priorities.

But some of the players who are already here will get better (don’t get frustrated with James Young just yet). The lessons acquired from their modest successes this year are far more valuable in the long run than a couple of spots in the lottery.

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The long-term future is bright, the immediate future fascinating.

I just wish they could have stuck around in the present a little longer.

The 2014-15 Celtics played as a team, especially once the roster stopped churning. They were underdogs who feared no favorite, even one led by the greatest player in the world. They were so much more fun than we might have dared to expect.

Their record tells us they were mediocre.

It tells us nothing about who they really were. Or better, who they might become.

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