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The Boston Celtics and the enjoyability of high expectations

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Is “Title or bust” a healthy way to live?

Boston Celtics Introduce Kyrie Irving Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

High expectations suck. There is one successful result, while many paths to failure exist. Remember back in school when you kind of wanted to ease into a good grade? If you aced the first test, your parents then expected it. If you got a B, there was still room for improvement. That meant that A down the line was enjoyable.

We aren’t talking about setting the bar so low that any success is cause for celebration, but starting somewhere reasonable is always best. That sets you up to have to work for it, but leaves a little room on the other side towards greatness.

Sports are no different, except that the process is repeated almost ad nauseum. The previous season ends and we’re on to the offseason, with nary a break it seems like these days. Your team makes moves and you’re ready for what is to come. You discuss it with anyone who will listen. You read everything you can find. You watch highlights of the new players. Then the preseason comes and you see it for real for the first time. Then the regular season comes, and if you’ve put high expectations on something, there is really only one enjoyable outcome. The rest is all just different versions of failure.

In many cases, Boston Celtics fans are also fans of the New England Patriots. While realizing that for many that may not hold true, let’s ask a simple question: When was the last time you enjoyed a Pats season? Not just at the end, but from start to finish. Truly enjoyed watching them every single Sunday.

I bet the gut instinct is to say, “Last year. Greatest comeback ever! Number five!” While some of that is true, was that season really enjoyable? How many of us (including myself as I am a massive Patriots fan, essentially the only fandom for a team I have left minus any Team USA team and whatever teams my daughter is playing on) said, in our heads or maybe out loud, when the Pats were down 28-3 “I’m never going to hear the end of this from (insert jerks who rub it in here)!”

If you are really honest, the last enjoyable Patriots season was probably 2008. Brady went down and the Pats were underdogs again. Every win felt like they earned it. The losses didn’t sting as much that year, because Brady wasn’t there. But in reality it was our expectations that changed.

The expectation for the Patriots every year is Super Bowl or bust. Nothing short of lifting another Lombardi trophy is acceptable. Every loss strings far more than any win is enjoyable. Hell, it has gotten to the point that anything but a blowout victory feels almost like a loss. “Sure, we beat the Bucs, but we should have slaughtered them!” I’ll even admit to having uttered the phrase “Would have rather gone 0-16 and gotten the first pick if we aren’t winning the Super Bowl.” Usually that is followed by the standard jokes about Bill Belichick trading that pick for several second and third round picks years down the road, in a failed attempt to ease my own suffering.

What does this have to do with the Celtics already? Well, thanks for hanging in there. For the first time in a while, Boston has high expectations. With the Warriors (who are now sitting in the NBA where the Pats sit in the NFL) out West and LeBron James still in the East, it might not be title or bust, but it isn’t far off.

For the first time in years, the Celtics are expected to win and win big. If they don’t make at least the Eastern Conference Finals and push the Cavaliers, this season is a failure. The most rational of fans can say that isn’t true. As long as the team is good, builds chemistry and the young players (many of them rookies) show improvement, it was a good year. But this is Boston and we aren’t exactly known for being the most rational people.

When Danny Ainge traded for Kevin Garnett in 2007 to complete a one summer rebuild, we put expectations on that team to be title contenders. That team came through and man was that season fun. That group rarely lost, then got challenged in the playoffs, ultimately culminating with a 48 minute love-fest in a blowout over the Lakers to clinch banner 17. Much like a movie that started strong, had an enjoyable twist, followed by a great finish — high expectations were set and met.

The bad part? Now we knew what was possible and we wanted more. 2009 ended in failure, as KG got hurt and an increasingly banged up Celtics squad bowed out in a rare Game 7 loss at home to the Magic. 2010 left us with an even more bitter taste in our mouth, as those same Lakers came from behind to beat the Celtics in the Finals. But those losses didn’t remove the belief that this group was a title contender. We all saw the flaws, but only the most rational fans would dare say them aloud. The rest of us remained convinced the 2011, 2012 and 2013 teams would bring home banner 18.

It took Ainge trading away Paul Pierce and Garnett to break those hopes. Now it was time to rebuild. And you know what? That first season was awful record-wise, but the team was enjoyable again. Sure, we loved rooting for our aging gladiators, but as long as they were here, we wanted a title. Now, that was all out the window. If anything, the team wasn’t bad enough for some.

Then a funny thing happened. Whether by plan or by chance, the Celtics got good. In 2015, they wildly overachieved and made the playoffs. The Cavs swept Boston, but no one really cared. A few grumbled that the team didn’t tank, but that was a fun group to root for. The 2016 squad captured our hearts as a gritty, hard-working group of underdogs and we loved them for it. Every win was savored and the first round postseason loss was excused due to Avery Bradley getting hurt and written off as part of the growing process.

Things started to turn in 2017. Isaiah Thomas was a legit All-Star level player and Ainge added Al Horford to the mix. Yet, many still counted out the Celtics. Statistical models favored Boston being good and so did Celtics fans. That was about it. Comments like “What can you win with a midget as your best player?” and “What has Horford ever won?” were common. Fine with us. Call us underdogs. That is when Boston is at our best. Th best record in the Eastern Conference followed and the team even took a game off the previously unbeaten Cavs, despite IT being out. It hurt, but we had a team we enjoyed rooting for every game again.

The summer of 2017 changed all that. In comes Gordon Hayward in free agency. Jayson Tatum instantly became a favorite as he scored at will in Summer League. The trade for Kyrie Irving was a bit of a shock, because we had to say goodbye the rest of our scrappy heroes, but we’re all onboard now.

You know what else is onboard? High expectations. If this Celtics team doesn’t push Cleveland to the brink in the East, the year was a failure. And that is the bare minimum expectancy. Most believe this team should be playing in June, with some even convinced they should be the ones to raise banner 18, probably by beating the unbeatable Warriors.

Tom Brady likes to tell the story of asking longtime University of Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk about his favorite Big Ten championship ring. Falk responded with “The next one.” That has since become a mantra for Brady. Just like with Brady and the Pats, all the rings and banners are nice for the Celtics, but 18 is the one fans want most.

But if it doesn’t happen this year, does that mean we can’t enjoy the season? When the Celtics invariably drop a mid-season game to someone they shouldn’t, the catcalls are going to come. The same jerks who said “Can’t win with a midget!” are going to say “Lost your heart! Can’t win without heart!” And you know what? We’ll seethe about it inside. Outwardly, we’ll respond with “The playoffs are what matter. Talk to us then!” But inside we’ll wonder if they are right.

You see, when you set high expectations, you spend as much time worrying about failure as you do looking forward to victory. There are so many ways it can go wrong, but only one way it can go right.

The advice here is not to do it to yourself by expecting nothing short of glory. Most reading this just said “Forget that. This is Boston. Nothing short of titles is enough.” That is part of the misery we put upon ourselves. We worry about losing and the shame that follows and brood when it happens, only allowing ourselves brief interludes of sheer joy when the trophy is hoisted. Only to return to the worries and brooding as the next season dawns.

High expectations sucks. But you know what? It’s better to have them, than to have no hope at all. It is better to breathe the rarified air of champions, than to constantly choke on the exhaust of perpetual failure. But that doesn’t stop us from the inexorable apprehension that comes with those high expectations. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to worrying out who defends LeBron in May.