After a Brooklyn Nets loss to the Bulls last night, the Celtics are officially heading back to the postseason for the first time in two years.
At the beginning of this season, I said the Celtics should make the playoffs given how weak the Eastern Conference is. I was wrong. That Celtics team that I was talking about back in November probably would not have made the playoffs if they had stayed together. I remember being at the Garden on Opening Night and watching a team led by Rajon Rondo absolutely dismantle the Brooklyn Nets. We could be a solid team, I thought. I loved the addition of Marcus Thornton who appeared to be willing and able to provide scoring off the bench.
My hope slowly started to vanish as I watched the young Celtics continuously lose leads and fail to execute in the fourth quarter to finish close games. It was clear that they lacked scoring and, most of all, it was clear the Rondo needed to go. He may have been racking up ridiculous amounts of assists but it wasn’t helping us win. When you’re considered the best player on the team and the ball is in your hands a majority of the time but you have no ability to score, you become more of a detriment than anything else. That was the case with Rondo. On December 19th, Danny Ainge finally found a deal he liked and he shipped the all-star point guard to Dallas. That was the end of chapter one of the 2014-15 Boston Celtics, which featured the Rondo-led squad. In this chapter, the C’s lost an abundance of close games and stumbled to a record of 9-14 before the deal was made. Although it was a step in the right direction to trade him, it was almost inevitable that the Celtics would continue to struggle, and they did. Now they not only lacked a confident scorer, but also true point guard.
I’d rather not reflect on the three weeks in which Jeff Green was the face of the Celtics’ franchise, so I won’t. That was chapter two of the Celtics’ season, and when Green was traded on January 12th they found themselves with a record of 12-23. Although the playoffs weren’t completely out of the question, the possibility of the Celtics making it seemed highly unlikely. The only player the Celtics got in the Green deal was an aging Tayshaun Prince, so expectations were about as low as they could be.
Chapter three was the chapter in which the C’s weren’t as much a team as they were a collection of assets. Their best player was Jared Sullinger and their best scoring option was Evan Turner. Guys like Tayshaun Prince and Jae Crowder were actually exceeding expectations and Brad Stevens was definitely getting the most out of his players, but the lack of talent was evident as the C’s struggled to string together wins. On February 1st, they had a record of 16-30 and were a far cry from a playoff spot.
The turnaround for the Celtics came on February 3rd, and no that’s not when they acquired Isaiah Thomas. It’s actually a couple weeks before when they beat the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. I understand that beating the worst team in the NBA isn’t a big deal, but that day marks the day that the Celtics began their transition from mediocrity to a playoff team. Going into that game, they had lost 16 of their last 22 and showed no signs of being a consistently good basketball team. That win against the Knicks was the beginning of a three game win streak for Boston, their first since mid-December. The streak was cut short at three thanks to a tough one possession loss to the Bucks, but the C’s bounced back the next game (their last before the all-star break) by beating the Atlanta Hawks. Going into the all-star break after winning 4 of their last 5 including a victory over the best team in the Eastern Conference was a great boost of confidence for this young team.
After the all-star break is when chapter four of the Celtics’ season began. This chapter can be referred as the Isaiah Thomas chapter, or simply, the Playoff Push. The C’s acquired Thomas from the Phoenix Suns before the trade deadline in exchange for Marcus Thornton and a draft pick. They had the heart, they had the desire, and now, for the first time since Paul Pierce, they finally had a good confident scorer. Thomas immediately showed us what we had been missing as he led the Celtics to victories with his fearlessness and clutch fourth quarter buckets. Anyone who thought trading Rondo was a bad idea soon became aware of the importance of having a point guard that can actually shoot, especially when there aren’t any other elite scorers on the team. Despite Sullinger being out for a few weeks, the Celtics continued to win games. And while Isaiah has provided timely baskets for Boston, it has truly been a team effort. Marcus Smart’s defense alone should make him a Rookie of the Year candidate, Jae Crowder has brought an incredible amount of effort and energy on both ends of the floor, Tyler Zeller and Brandon Bass have been extremely efficient. Evan Turner continues to be a talented scorer and clutch shooter and has done a better job of protecting the basketball as of late. Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome, who were brought over from Detroit in exchange for Tayshaun Prince, have both exceeded expectations. I can’t even recall how many times Jerebko has saved a game with his effort on the offensive boards. Avery Bradley continues to be an elite defender and has made great strides offensively. Kelly Olynyk, James Young, I could go through the entire roster and talk about guys playing their hearts out and overachieving.
Of course, that’s all a credit to the coach. Through all the ups and downs of this season, with players coming in and out, the one constant has been Brad Stevens. Somehow, through all of this mayhem, he has maintained a level head and managed to get the most out of his players. I’m not sure where he’ll finish in the Coach of the Year voting but if he’s not in the top three then he is being severely under appreciated. Besides Mike Budenholzer, there isn’t a coach in the NBA who has done more with less than Brad Stevens, and there definitely isn’t a coach who has had to deal with more roster changes.
So here we are. It’s mid April and the Celtics have clinched a spot in the NBA postseason. Not the Celtics you saw on Opening Night, not the Celtics you saw after the Rondo trade or after the Green trade. I’m talking about the Celtics who have the second best record in the Eastern Conference since that win against the Knicks on February 3rd. Yes, you read that correctly. The Celtics are the second best team in the Eastern Conference since about a week before the all-star break. Their record might say that they’re under .500, but if the Cavs or Hawks think they’re facing a sub-.500 team in the first round of the playoffs then they’re in for a rude awakening.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : John Bardsley