If you'll indulge me for a second, I'd like to back away from all this talk about 50-loss seasons and tank jobs and ping-pong balls. Forget about the early summer vacation, forget about looking ahead to next year. I just want to say one thing, and it might be a bit controversial:
Man, this basketball thing is still a lot of fun.
The Celtics are long gone from the playoff race this season, but they're still putting a tremendously entertaining product on the floor every night, and they're having a heck of a time attempting to play spoiler against the Eastern Conference's best. Tonight was another example of that, as the C's drained a flurry of late 3-pointers to give them more of a puncher's chance - a 96-96 ballgame with two minutes left to play - against the postseason-bound Chicago Bulls.
They may ultimately have lost, a 107-102 final that moves the Bulls back to within a half-game of the East's No. 3 seed, but they competed hard and gave a good team a run for its money, giving their home fans plenty to cheer about in the process. That should count for something.
At least that's what I thought.
"None," coach Brad Stevens countered. "Zero.
"We can sugarcoat it, and we can say it's nice to be close. But at the end of the day, it is what it is from a record standpoint."
There's a disconnect here between the Celtics' fans and their personnel on the inside. For the 18,000 strong who filled the TD Garden seats tonight, this was the ideal game. They executed well on both ends of the floor, drilled five 3s in the final five minutes (one from Rajon Rondo and two each from Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger) and made a series of impressive hustle plays to keep the Bulls from pulling away until the bitter end. Then they lost, which is just fine, given the team's interest in its lottery position.
As for the Celtics themselves? Nah. To them, a loss is a loss.
"Everybody knows how frustrating it is when you don't win," Sullinger said. "I'm pretty sure everybody here was at one point a sore loser. You know it's frustrating when you're in the game and you lose. But we get to see them tomorrow. It's like a little mini-playoff series. Hopefully we bounce back."
Even at 23-50, the sixth 50-loss season in franchise history, the Celtics aren't losing sight of any individual game. They all still matter. The players still fight to the final second every night, and it still hits them pretty hard when they lose.
All of these defeats can be trying for anyone's patience. The trick for the Celtics is to maintain perspective and focus on the process.
"It's a little déjà vu, but I'm not discouraged at all," said Rondo. "You can look at it a couple of different ways, but we hate losing. We've got to find a way eventually to win some of these games. They're very winnable - we're just not closing these games the right way. We've just got to execute better offensively and defensively."
If this all sounds like a broken record, that's because it is a little bit. But Boston collectively hasn't been beaten down just yet. Just as the fans still show up and enjoy these closely fought battles, the team continues to work and bring the same workmanlike focus it's had all season.
"There's no hiding from it - the reality is we're a team that isn't by record very good," Stevens admitted. "A lot of people in our situation would not handle that the right way. Our task is to handle it the right way, to be professionals about it and to bring our best every day."
The Celtics are trying to maintain perspective. Long-term, the future is still bright. The franchise still has Stevens, Rondo, strong ownership and management, and a boatload of assets. For now, the coach and players just need to keep working and do the best they can with what they've got.
"We've got nine games left, two weeks left, and it's kind of like, 'How much better can you really get?'" Stevens said. "But we've got to make sure we keep plugging and keep identifying areas where we're not performing."
Eventually, that diligence will pay off. Patience is a virtue.