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All Things Considered, The Celtics Have Come A Long Way

The Celtics were swept at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers this week, but think about how far they've come in the last 12 months.

This group has had quite a year.
This group has had quite a year.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Before you get too down in the dumps about the Celtics' season coming to the unceremonious end that it did, with the Cleveland Cavaliers prevailing in a seemingly effortless four-game sweep, I'd like to weigh in with some perspective. Just stop for a moment, if you could, and think back to where we were a year ago. Do you remember 2014?

I do. Last April, the Celtics were just finishing up a 25-57 season. It was the third-worst record in franchise history. After beginning the year with great hope, they closed it in disarray and despair. Their rotation was way too dependent on apathetic veterans (Kris Humphries, Joel Anthony) and young kids in way over their heads (Chris Babb, Chris Johnson). Those Celtics lost 16 of their last 19 games. In the final couple of weeks they were pitted twice against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that was literally trying to lose every game it could, and they somehow got thumped both times. How that was possible, I couldn't even tell you. Anyway, suffice it to say that season was awful. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

What I hated most about that year was the monotony of it. I covered just about every home game live from the TD Garden, and especially in those final weeks, I remember torturing myself looking for anything new or interesting to write about. I tried to stay thoughtful and positive - exploring the young talent the Celtics were developing even in defeat, or discussing the importance that professional athletes place on "playing for pride," but there were only so many times I could repeat myself. Eventually, there were no words left. Losing seasons are miserable for players, I'm sure, but they can be equally vexing for writers.

After that season was over, the future looked no less inviting. Every summer brings potential for every NBA team - whether it's a lottery pick, a free agent chase, what have you - but the ceiling seemed pretty low for these Celtics. There were major limiting factors at play. Namely: How good could a team be with Rajon Rondo as its best player? What could they do offensively with Jeff Green as their go-to scorer? How could they defend competently without a formidable big man protecting the rim? The Celtics made moves in the summer of 2014, most notably drafting Marcus Smart and swinging a trade for Tyler Zeller and Marcus Thornton, but they appeared no closer to answering any of the above questions.

Many, many prognosticators pegged the Celtics for another season in the neighborhood of 25 wins in 2014-15. That they surpassed that mark - nay, obliterated it, winning 15 games more when all was said and done - is a testament to all the work put in by... well, literally everyone. Hats off to every Celtic. In the locker room, on the coaching staff, in the front office - all of them.

As this season began, the most important man in the TD Garden was the one behind the scenes, calling the shots. Danny Ainge held the future of the franchise in his hands. It was on him to decide what would happen to Rondo, to Green, to all the assets in his ever-growing war chest. He had the flexibility to lead the team in any direction he chose. He could add another player or two to build around the vets; he could start selling guys off; he could stay the course and drift off into another 25-win season if he so preferred.

It took a while for Ainge's vision to take shape. Even a couple of months into the season, it still wasn't evident. The Celtics began the 2014-15 campaign drifting off into another forgettable season - starting first 3-6, then 4-11, then battling back ever so slightly to 9-14. They looked lost. Then in mid-December, Ainge took action, moving Rondo and then Green soon after.

Many teams give up and die after casting off their two "best" players midseason, but this young and carefree group kept playing because it simply didn't know any better. I don't know about you, but I'm still somewhat stunned that this team actually managed to win 20 of its last 29 games to close the regular season. That actually happened. Every time I think about it, it amazes me more.

First and foremost, the credit goes to the players. Ainge made a shrewd series of moves to rebuild this team on the fly, and Brad Stevens did a great job coaching the guys that fell into his lap, but what I'll remember most about the spring of 2015 is the performance of the guys in uniform. I'll remember Zeller, out of nowhere, emerging as a legit starting center and anchoring the team on both ends. That game-winning bucket against Utah has been playing in my head on loop for weeks. I'll remember Isaiah Thomas, whose knack for fourth-quarter scoring carried the Celtics time and time again. I'll remember Jae Crowder, whose energy and fearlessness epitomized the C's run to the playoffs. A year ago, we barely knew who any of these guys were. Now? It's weird to call them heroes when all they did was lead the team to 40 wins and a first-round exit, but screw it. It still feels like heroism to me.

Thanks to last year, we know what it's like to see a bad team slog through the end of a season. It's painful and interminable. You watch guys for weeks, doing nothing but play out the string - trotting up and down the floor, numbing themselves to poor results, collecting paychecks and counting the days until summer vacation. You just want it to be over.

This team was the opposite. I didn't ever want this Celtics season to end. This group was youthful, exuberant, collaborative and totally free. They played like they had absolutely nothing to lose. God, that's fun to watch.

Of course the playoffs turned out the way they did. I saw a great stat at the beginning of this series that only reinforced for me the Celtics' impending doom - before this postseason began, Boston's entire active roster had fewer combined playoff games played than LeBron James alone. Not that experience is the be-all and end-all, but that's pretty jarring. It lets you know this C's group still has a lot of seasoning left to do. They're still growing, and they'll surely be back to this stage before all's said and done.

The Celtics lost, but just think about last year. Think about the lows we experienced, and why we stuck with the team through all of them. You watch losing seasons because they make the winners just that much more gratifying. If you've been with the Celtics for a decade or more, you just might remember the lows of 2007 and the highs of '08. On a smaller scale, this past year brought that same cycle of emotions.

The ending notwithstanding, this season has reminded us why we're fans. You stick with your team through the bad times, you pray for the good ones and it's so, so satisfying when they come. This is what you watch for. And hey - in the coming years, there might be even more experiences like this to keep us sticking around.

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