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Win Or Lose To The Cavaliers, The Celtics Are Building Something

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Miraculously, the Celtics are in the playoffs, and they're matched up against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. They might be dead meat, but their future is intriguing nonetheless.

These Celtics are on their way.
These Celtics are on their way.
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Given the torrid pace at which the Celtics finished the regular season - including eight wins in their final nine games and an overall record of 20-9 from late February on - it's understandable that there's a great deal of optimism surrounding the C's heading into their first-round matchup with the vaunted Cleveland Cavaliers. Even with LeBron James and company rested and waiting on their home court, Boston remains hopeful.

Perhaps not about winning, per se. That would be asking a bit much. But there's hope nonetheless - phrases like "give them a series" and "put a scare into them" are being bandied about every now and then, and I've even heard one or two fans compare the 2015 Celtics to the 2008 Hawks - a young team without playoff experience that surprisingly pushed the title-bound Celtics to seven games. Long story short, word on the street is the C's won't embarrass themselves.

To that, I say: Meh. Maybe you're right. But that's not the point.

The Celtics have come a long way just to make it this far. Regardless of what happens in the coming week or two, the 2014-15 season has been an unqualified success, and anything from here on is gravy. The really interesting question, though, is what the Celtics are building over the long haul. Making the playoffs in 2015 was the beginning of something, not the end.

***

Imagine waking up on a Saturday morning eager to take a weekend jaunt to the beach. You climb out of bed, look out the window and there's a massive storm cloud overhead. You check the weather but find nothing conclusive - there's a 50-50 chance of thunderstorms all weekend. Do you take that beach trip, do you stay home, or do you stand there motionless, indecisive, crippled by the fear that any decision you make might be the wrong one?

It's pretty obvious where I'm going with this, right? For about a year and a half, Rajon Rondo was the Celtics' storm cloud. His presence hung over the Celtics' rebuilding plans constantly, forcing Danny Ainge and the rest of the organization into a holding pattern as they tried to decide on a direction for their future. To a lesser extent, Jeff Green was a small nebule up there in the sky with Rondo, also wielding his pseudo-win-now-ishness to make the Celtics' future murkier and more unpredictable. What were the Celtics with Rondo and Green? Were they a decent team, just one piece away from legit contention, or were they a rebuilding group that couldn't decide what to build around? Between June 2013, when the Celtics begin to dismantle their core and start over, and December 2014, when they finally took the next step by dealing Rondo, we had lots of questions and few answers.

Then the cloud was lifted. With Rondo gone, and Green also shipped out shortly thereafter, the Celtics began to shape their future both near and far. In the years to come, they'd be blessed with a young core group, a stockpile of draft picks and a newfound level of cap flexibility - but in the here and now, they'd also have talent. Ainge had found a way to play the short game and the long one at the same time. In the modern NBA, that doesn't happen often.

***

Rebuilding in today's league is often a fairly transparent process. Look at what Sam Hinkie's doing in Philadelphia - knowing his team had little chance of competing for a title, he blew it up and began a multi-year process of losing and collecting assets. If he was going to lose anyway, was there really any reason not to do it transparently?

In Boston, however, that would never fly. The Celtics are too prideful to lose Hinkie-style. Through thick and thin, they try to sell out the TD Garden every night. They want all of New England to tune in for Mike and Tommy. Putting out a quality product is always important. Chasing that next championship banner to add to the first 17 is always the priority, and it's never a good look to betray apathy about doing so.

That doesn't mean you can't rebuild if you're the Celtics. Sometimes, you have to. But Celtics tanking has always been different than Sixers tanking - it's cryptic and double-talk-y and weird. The C's organization will never tell you they want to lose games, even if they do. They'll never admit that their real priority is three years from now, even if it is. And they'll never announce midseason that they're making a subtle shift from their original strategy - even if, as turned out to be the case in the winter of 2015, they were.

Ainge didn't shift gears dramatically from "tank" to "dominate" this winter, but he did make a couple of subtle personnel moves that he surely anticipated would move the needle for this season. Acquiring Isaiah Thomas was a significant step. Thomas was more than just a trade throw-in - he was a legit player that Ainge had been interested in for years. He explored the possibility of signing Thomas last summer before the Suns swooped in and claimed him with an offer of four years and $27 million. In getting the dynamic bench scorer at the deadline in February, Ainge made it just a little harder for the team to collect ping-pong balls for this spring. The other players he reeled in this season - a vibrant young energy guy in Jae Crowder from Dallas, and a pair of floor-stretching forwards from Detroit in Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome - made a difference as well. Perhaps with those other guys, Ainge didn't know what to expect. They were sort of throw-ins, sort of future assets, sort of guys who could help win games now. For the most part, they were just shots in the dark.

They happened to hit - because in Boston, a bizarre collection of talent turned out to be worth much more than the sum of its parts. Some of the credit for that surely goes to Brad Stevens, but we don't shower nearly enough praise on the players themselves. Here's to Crowder, who's shown an eagerness to run the floor and to guard multiple positions with no fear. To the Detroit guys, who have shot the lights out in the limited opportunities they've seen. And to countless other Celtics who have shined rather unexpectedly this year. Who knew that Evan Turner could redeem himself after last year's Indiana disaster, that Kelly Olynyk could lead the team in real plus-minus (really!), that Marcus Smart could prove so NBA-ready at age 21 or that Tyler Zeller could emerge as not only an efficient scorer but a legit rim defender as well?

There are individual success stories up and down this roster. Given that this group arguably has less "star power" than any of the other 15 teams in the postseason, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that the Celtics needed every last one of these happy surprises just to get to a modest 40 wins. That the C's compiled this record, with this roster, is bordering on miraculous. But it's also only a start. They don't hang banners at the Garden for 40-win seasons.

***

All right, time for some tough love - the Celtics still aren't that good.

Despite winning 20 of its final 29 games, this team was still subpar in 2014-15. More losses than wins. The 16th-best record out of 30 teams. They outscored their opponents by a mere 13 points the entire season - a cumulative season score of 8,312 to 8,299. Not exactly world-beating. As a thought exercise, pretend for a second that Boston's in the Western Conference and Utah's in the East - our entire perspective would be different. The Jazz would in the playoffs, the feel-good story of the whole NBA, and the Celtics would be headed right back to the lottery like last year.

The Celtics have reached mediocrity, which is a significant step up from where they were a year ago. But there's still a vast gulf between being a fringe playoff team and a great one. Try asking a Washington or Brooklyn fan how tough it is to reach that next level. They'll tell you.

What's tricky is that it's hard to say where the Celtics are in their trajectory. They've made the playoffs, and they've got an interesting collection of talent that's youngish and slows subtle signs of improvement - but how much better will these guys get? How much more can Olynyk, Jared Sullinger or Avery Bradley add to their games?

The path from here to an actual, real-life above-.500 record remains impossibly murky. It's still hard to say what Ainge has up his sleeve for the future. He's collected some assets, but what will that translate into ultimately? Will he make this team a contender again in a year or three, or a decade or three? It's anyone's guess. He might continue to build this core through the draft, or he could attempt to roll his assets into another superstar as he did in 2007. Alternatively, he could take the middle road and add a decent free agent or two in the offseason - think Indiana getting David West, or the Warriors adding Andre Iguodala. Sometimes one last piece makes all the difference.

The point is, we don't know. Anything could happen in the coming months and years, and that's what makes being a fan of this Celtics team so intriguing. The mystery is what keeps you hooked.

***

Anyway, the C's are playing Cleveland in the first round. Not the most climactic of playoff matchups - unless you're an absolutely crazy person, you know the Celtics have little chance of advancing past a Cavs team that many favor to win the East. The C's are too green, too lacking in superstar talent, too overmatched. The only intrigue here will be whether the playoff run lasts four games or five.

There will be some things worth watching, to be sure. Watching Marcus Smart guard Kyrie Irving like a bulldog will be a treat, and the matchup of LeBron James against either Brandon Bass or Jae Crowder will be interesting, though both will probably have their struggles against the best player on the planet. It's also fun to fantasize about what Playoff Brad Stevens has planned for the Celtics tactically. These games won't be as competitive as we'd like, but they'll be learning experiences for the team and the fanbase both. So that's something.

But again - that's not the point. The Celtics' story right now is one of "playing the long game." They're building a team that can be competitive not just in late April 2015, but for several years down the road, and every game these players learn more about how to gel with one another. It's gratifying to watch that come together.

The Celtics are building something. They're not "building" like Sam Hinkie in Philly is building - instead, they're doing it by putting together an on-court product that not only scintillates now, but offers flashes of promise for tomorrow as well. Win or lose against Cleveland, that will be no less true. The cloud's lifted; this Celtics team is going to the beach again. Let's enjoy it.