BOSTON – The Boston Celtics can say that they pushed the best player in the world to the limit, forcing him to play all 48 minutes with his season on the line.
They can say that, in the last eight years, no Eastern Conference opponent has had a bigger lead over LeBron James' team with the chance to eliminate him. They can say that they made it to Game 7 of the conference finals without two of their three best players. They can say with confidence that their best years are ahead of them.
They can also say that they blew a great opportunity to be the team that ended James' run atop the East and to be thought of as, perhaps, the most resilient team to ever make The Finals.
The Celtics won 16 straight games shortly after seeing Gordon Hayward go down with a horrific injury. They improved offensively in the playoffs, despite the absence of leading scorer Kyrie Irving. They won their first 10 home games of the postseason.
But they did not win their 11th and the Celtics' season of resilience came to an end in brutal fashion. Sometimes it really is a make-or-miss league, and the Celtics missed many shots on Sunday, losing 87-79 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7.
They had their chances. And maybe it was just a young team unable to handle the moment. But the shot that will haunt them the most came from their most reliable veteran.
With the Cavs up three and less than 3 1/2 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Jeff Green doubled Marcus Morris in the post, putting Cleveland in rotation. The ball found Al Horford behind the 3-point line, between the top of the key and the right wing. J.R. Smith, the nearest defender, had his head turned. Horford, a 42-percent 3-point shooter this season, was wide open.
His shot hit the back of the rim and the Celtics wouldn't have another chance to tie or take the lead.
"We put ourselves in position," Horford said. "We were one or two shots away from being there, and it just wasn't enough."
Their effective field goal percentage of 38 percent was their third-worst mark in 101 total games this season. They shot a brutal 7-39 (18 percent) from 3-point range, and according to Second Spectrum tracking, 36 of those attempts were uncontested. "Just one of those nights" was a phrase uttered multiple times in the Boston locker room afterward. It was a bad time for "just one of those nights."
The Celtics scored 35 points on their first 27 possessions of the game and took a 12-point lead on a Morris 3 with 8:52 left in the second quarter. Prior to Sunday, the largest in-game deficit James had faced while also facing elimination in the East over the last eight years was 11 (in the second quarter of Game 7 vs. Boston in 2012).
Though the Celtics would hold a brief lead early in the fourth, the game may have been lost when that 12-point lead didn't become 15 or 16 with the Cavs going scoreless on their next five possessions. This was another slow-paced game (85 possessions per team) and neither team was shooting well from deep, making rallies that much more difficult.
"We were in really good shape, really good shape," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. "And then we just couldn't quite extend the lead."
Missed shots and turnovers allowed the Cavs to climb to within four at halftime, and the Celtics' offense never really recovered. They scored 44 on their last 58 possession, an anemic rate of 0.76 points per trip. In the end, Irving's absence was felt. Celtics point guards Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart shot a combined 3-24, including 0-14 from 3-point range.
Few expected the Celtics, without Irving, to get this far. But they just kept getting better through these playoffs and won their first three home games in this series by a total of 51 points. Stevens couldn't say that he was surprised that they were here.
"It's funny how kind of the lens changes when you're sitting up here disappointed," he said. "But that's how much belief these guys instilled in all of us."
He even thought they could win a game shooting so poorly. Smart, in true Marcus Smart fashion, was a plus-2 despite missing 9 of his 10 shots.
"This team was the only team that I've been around at this level," Stevens said, "that I thought we might shoot 36 percent and win the game."
They did not. And no matter how impressed we all were with the Celtics this season, no matter what anybody's expectations were six weeks ago, the end still hurt. This Cleveland team, missing Irving just as much as the Celtics, was clearly the most beatable team James has had over the past eight years. When Boston led by 12 on Sunday, the Cavs' cumulative point differential for the postseason was a paltry plus-2.
Taking this team to The Finals, with Kevin Love missing most of Game 6 and all of Game 7, may be James' greatest accomplishment. He averaged 36.7 points (on an effective field goal percentage of 61 percent), 9.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists over the last six games of the series. You have to tip your cap to the best player in the world, but you also have to think about the opportunity that slipped through your hands.
"The pain is part of the path," Stevens said. "And so we have to let it motivate us."
The future is brighter in Boston than in any other NBA city. Hayward and Irving will be back next season, and Jayson Tatum -- a rare offensive bright spot with 24 points -- and Jaylen Brown will only get better. It would be a shock if the Celtics weren't back in the conference finals again next year.
But, of course, nothing is guaranteed. There have been plenty of young teams in this league's past that failed to get back to the top after falling short.
"I could take a couple of days to kind of get away from it," Stevens said, "but training camp can't come soon enough."
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