After the Celtics clinched the 7th seed on Tuesday, it felt like reason enough to celebrate. Despite a record roster turnover that included trading the team's two best players away and a transparent strategy by management to rebuild the franchise by tearing it down first, the team finished the season 20-11 after the trade deadline, including a 10-3 stretch in March and April with big wins coming against the very teams that they were competing against for a post-season berth.
When the regular season officially ended a day later, the accolades started pouring in. Brad Stevens reached wunderkind status around the league and was named coach of the month. SBNation's Mike Prada tapped Boston as the playoffs' Cinderella and almost every blog and local paper read like the team was just happy to get invited to the ball. With most experts writing off the Celtics in 4 to 5 games, maybe the team should have just popped champagne after #82 in Milwaukee. They had overachieved all season and that was in and of itself a pretty big accomplishment.
But enough already with the pats on the back. This is the playoffs and we're in a war now.
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Some might wonder what the point is. Why put so much effort into making the playoffs and more so, securing a higher seed to face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers? Tangibly, it doesn't help the rebuild. Had the Celtics just laid down over the final weeks of the season, they'd be looking at a #11 draft pick rather than #16. "Better luck next year." "Can't wait to see what Danny does with all those picks and cap space."
James Young could have spent the last ten games in Celtic green rather than Red Claw red and played valuable minutes in the bigs for the sake of development. That would have made sense. Minutes didn't have to go to Datome or Jerebko, two players on expiring contracts. "Young could be the next Kobe, but we need to know what we have in him." "Gigi who?"
Isaiah Thomas and Jared Sullinger could have just rested their sore back and broken foot respectively and we would have respected them for that. There's no shame in looking ahead to the summer and regrouping in October. "Come back next season healthy." "There's no need to risk anything now."
But then there's the intangible value of the playoffs, the stuff that carries over from year to year. It's oversimplified to just call it "experience." Experience is riding a bike over and over again until you can balance on your own. It's deeper than that. It's more like falling off that bike, scraping your knees, and banging up your elbows until you learn to ride. That's the playoffs. Maybe you win a couple of games, maybe even a series or two, but lose and you have to wait an entire year and grind through another 82-game season just to get back.
We don't know how these games are going to play out, but I know I love this team and I love how they play and a part of me really agrees with Mike Gorman. I think they can gut punch Cleveland and steal this series, but even if it plays out like everybody else is saying, you have to want the playoffs for this team and not just as an empty reward for a great regular season. You want it for this team because—well, for lack of a better word—you want them to get angry.
This team doesn't lack character. They wouldn't have gotten to this point without character. They exude this ultra-calm demeanor and workman-like belief that if they prepare and execute, they can accomplish anything. Much of that credit should go to Stevens, but Danny has also assembled a very special roster. It's why Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley are still here and why newcomers Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart will be here for years to come. They get it and in two years, the heart and soul of the franchise has been restored.
It's been a great feel good story, but at some point, it's gotta get ugly, because what is missing from this team is hate. Admittedly, that's a harsh word, especially one in today's social and political climate, and one probably too strong to use in sports, but as much as this Celtics team has grown over the last seven months, much of that growth has been directed within. They've grown to trust each other on the floor and to believe in the next man up. It's a locker room seemingly without ego and conflict and as we've learned over the last week, unlike those Big Three era Celtics with Pierce recently revealing the truth of how dysfunctional they really were behind the scenes.
But to their credit, what those Celtics had was an "us against everybody" mentality that lead them to two Finals against the rival Lakers. Kevin Garnett brought that bar fight disposition to every game and it's not a surprise to me that that attitude has travelled well with former teammates Tony Allen in Memphis and (unfortunately for us) Kendrick Perkins in Cleveland.
That's why it's so important that we're going up against LeBron. Don't think James doesn't remember the last playoff series against Boston when he was still in a Cavs jersey. That Celtics team effectively ended his first stint in Cleveland and motivated him to find a way to beat them next to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. That's not an easy lesson to forget. When asked if facing these Celtics reminded him of past futilities against this team, he recently bristled, "I got the same feelings." And that's kind of what I'm talking about. The playoffs create this fabric in a player's career and in a franchise's history that can't be avoided.
Ask those 80's Pistons about the Celtics or the 90's Bulls about those same Pistons. In took years of losing to them in the playoffs to tactically figure out how to eventually defeat them. Some personnel changed and game plans were altered, but it was the drive to beat those &*%@#$ that finally got them over the hump. I have no doubt that the current Celtics are internally fortified to take on all comers, but what I want to see is them directing their efforts at a common enemy.
The Cavs should be around for a while. There's talk that they might lose Kevin Love this summer (some have even speculated to Boston) but as long as LeBron James is in Cleveland, they're going to be a beast in the East. Boston could have faced the #1 seeded Atlanta Hawks or even the Chicago Bulls, but I want them to beat LeBron. Forget "beat LA." "Beat LBJ!"
Maybe David doesn't have to hate Goliath to beat him. Maybe it's that laser focus devoid of emotion and rage that has propelled these Celtics to where they're at and what could give them a chance against one of the most talented teams in the league. Stevens has his team focused on what they do rather than getting emotional about their opponent and that's why--like every Celtics fan--I love that he's our coach.
But this is a best of seven. Brad Stevens and the Celtics won't just have to hit LeBron between the eyes once. They have to sling a stone four times just right to knock him down and it may not happen this year. Every game is a battle and someone is going to win this war over the next two weeks, but it's also a conflict that's going to span years. Win or lose today, Tuesday, or the rest of the series, LeBron James stands firmly in the way of Banner #18 and I can't wait to beat him.
Let's go Celtics!