Despite Sweep, C's See Progress in Surprising Season

addByline("Peter Stringer", "Celtics.com", "PeterStringer");

BOSTON – It’s hard to take too many positives out of a the final game of a four-game sweep when you’re on the business end of the broom, but let’s be honest: did you even expect the Boston Celtics to be in the postseason in the first place?

Maybe you didn’t expect it, but Brad Stevens has said several times that he doesn’t put limits on his teams. Regardless of what he expected, Stevens closed his second season at the helm with mixed emotions as he addressed the media shortly after the final horn set the sun on the Celtics’ surprising season.

“I think the best way to phrase it is: I like our progress, but I like to win. So I’m disappointed right now. But it’s not at anybody or at myself – it’s just, you’re disappointed to lose,” Stevens told reporters Sunday afternoon after Boston’s 101-93 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4. “We have to get better; we have to get better in every which way, and that’s the challenge ahead. Because winning’s a lot more fun.”

TD Garden fans had fun for two energetic playoff games this week, and they sent the Celtics off with a loud “Let’s Go Celtics” chant that doesn’t go unnoticed by a team that’s watching its season slip away. Still, for the fourth consecutive game, the Celtics found themselves constantly chasing a superior team. In the midst of a rebuild, the Celtics have a handful of young players who’ve yet to ascend to star status. The Cavs, meanwhile, have three players who are bona fide NBA superstars. And one of those guys just happens to be the best player in the world.

Pundits expected a sweep, and they were proven right, but it wasn’t the field day some anticipated. The Celtics made the Cavaliers work for all four wins.

“The Celtics really challenged us," Cavaliers Coach David Blatt said on the podium after Sunday’s game. "It was a sweep, that’s not an easy thing, that’s not a small thing. On the other hand, it was not a walk in the park. We battled to win all these games and they made us do so to their credit.”

That credit will be of little consolation for the Celtics, who don’t hang banners for Division Championships like most other teams in the league. The standard in Boston is simple – the Celtics hang NBA championship banners. They’re either playing for a championship or building toward No. 18.

The last time the Celtics were in the playoffs two seasons ago, they fell to the Knicks in the first round, and it was clear that the KG/Pierce/Rondo era was over. The team was moving further away from title contention, a reality that led to the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn as the Celtics looked to dream it all up again.

Two years later, bounced in the first round, the team is trending upward with the rebuild well underway. The Celtics are a team on the rise; they just ran into a vastly superior opponent. With LeBron James, not to mention Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers are likely to emerge as the measuring stick in the Eastern Conference in June.

“I think this is why I’m glad we played the Cavs, because you’re going to be chasing that level of player, (trying) to figure out how to stop them or how to make it more difficult on them," Stevens said when asked about what he learned when it comes to competing at the highest levels in the NBA. "We’ve shown that we’ve been in games, even though we haven’t controlled everything we can control.

“I’m excited about where we stand, but I know we have a lot of work to do,” Stevens added.

That work begins shortly, with the NBA Draft just two months away. Ainge and company will have decisions to make about their own free agents, not to mention a few players around the league who could be shopping for new jerseys this summer. The good news is that the Celtics are back in the mix, and Stevens has developed a reputation as a solid NBA coach who gets the most from his team.

"I highly respect their coaching staff and especially their head coach," James said of Stevens. "(They're) a very well-coached team, he put those guys out there every night and put them in position to win the game. I think Brad Stevens is a very good young coach in our league."

Stevens’ team developed an identity this winter once Danny Ainge cleaned house. By dealing away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green this season, Ainge jettisoned his most talented remaining players, but they’d become uninspired and lacked the appetite for a rebuild. Instead, Ainge handed the keys to guys who came to Boston seeking opportunity. Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, Tyler Zeller and Isaiah Thomas all pounced on it.

A 40-42 record won’t exactly jump off the page in future media guides, but compared to the previous season, it’s a dramatic 15-game improvement, as well as a reflection upon the culture that Stevens and Ainge are building in Waltham. The Celtics head into this summer far ahead of where they were a year ago.

“We know where we can get better, we know individually where we need to improve, and we know collectively where we need to improve,” Stevens said. “And the best thing that I take from this year is that there’s growth, there’s building, there’s progress. Now we have to build on it. That’s the challenge, right? I mean, that’s the hard part is now continuing it and build on it. But we’ve got a good environment. That’s a real positive moving forward.”

The Celtics weren’t going to hang Banner 18 this June, and there’s a long way to go before they’ll have a legitimate shot at rings in the future. But they’re clearly heading in the right direction. That journey continues this summer.