C’s Fall Shy of Finals Berth, But Are Just Scraping Surface of Potential

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics walked off TD Garden’s parquet floor devastated Sunday night, having come just nine points shy of a trip to the NBA Finals. But as soon as Boston’s players entered their locker room following the 87-79 Game 7 defeat against the Cleveland Cavaliers, coach Brad Stevens made it a point to lift their spirits up.

“We all talked about being very appreciative for getting a chance to be around each other all year,” Stevens said after the game as he relayed the team's discussion to the media. “It was a tremendous group from the standpoint of pulling together. And it was just a great locker room with great support of one another.”

Without that collective support, the Celtics would have gotten nowhere this postseason, because all odds were stacked high against them from the very beginning.

For one, Boston entered the Playoffs without its top two players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, both of whom were lost to season-ending injuries.

On top of that, the C’s lacked experience. Their starting lineup consisted of two wings under the age of 22, a third-year point guard with little starting experience, and a pair of veteran big men.

And, as if that wasn't enough, they had a slew of superstars chomping at the bit to challenge them.

It was a daunting set of obstacles to overcome, but not once did Boston count itself out.

“We want to be as good and give ourselves as many chances as possible,” Stevens said of the team’s resilient mindset. “And when things that are tough happen, we don't want to take big dips. We still want to be incredibly competitive. This group, we had two really tough injuries -- three really tough injuries with [Daniel] Theis. But there's no dip. They just battled. They were special.”

What made the Celtics so special was that every single player embraced their respective roles. And every player contributed to the cause by simply doing their job.

Celtics fans got to enjoy the rise of rookie phenom Jayson Tatum, the two-way poise of Jaylen Brown, the contagious energy of Terry Rozier, the veteran leadership of Al Horford and the gritty, physical defensive play of Aron Baynes. They fell in love with the passion of Marcus Morris, the toughness of Marcus Smart, the elite defensive effort of Semi Ojeleye and the sparkiness of Shane Larkin.

And then of course, there was Coach Stevens, the mastermind on the sideline, who humbly deflected all praise he deservedly received back to his players.

“I feel just privileged to be a part of it,” said Stevens. “Just to be around these guys every day. I have a small role to play. Everybody that has a role in our organization plays it really well. It's a lot of fun to go to work every day. I'm totally appreciative of the players. They've been incredible all throughout our time here.”

The bond that the Celtics formed throughout the past year made the abrupt end to their season all the more difficult. But they will have so much to look forward to once they allow the season to digest.

Sure, the final moment was disappointing, but the big picture is more important.

“We had our opportunities. Things just didn't happen,” said Horford. “But what I've been telling you guys (the media) throughout the Playoffs, as a team, we're learning. We haven't been in these positions before as a group, and all of this has been a great learning experience for our group. I know that we'll be better from this.”

Entering this season, the Celtics had no idea what to expect. They had just four returnees from the previous campaign, and a roster consisting of players that were mostly under the age of 25.

Boston’s work was cut out from the start, but the C’s learned to grind through every obstacle thrown their way, all the way to the brink of a berth in the NBA Finals.

“It's definitely tough,” Horford said when discussing how close the Celtics came to taking the next step. “But we have nothing to hang our heads about.”

Why? Because Brown, Rozier, Tatum and the rest of the youngsters will continue to develop. Because Hayward and Irving are well on their way to full recoveries from their respective injuries. And because this is only the beginning of what’s yet to come.