"As I told our guys, we made a lot of great strides, but this pain is part of the path to what we ultimately want to be." - Brad Stevens
That quote best sums up where the Boston Celtics stand as the 2017 season came to a close. The pain of losing is fresh, but all part of the climb. As Ric Flair says “To be the man, you gotta beat the man! Woooooooooo!” and right now the Celtics are trying to beat the man.
In the history of the NBA, almost every eventual champion had to climb through another team in their conference to get to the mountain top. The early Celtics had to overcome the Philadelphia Warriors. The St. Louis Hawks had to get past the Minneapolis Lakers. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, the New York Knicks had to climb over the Celtics.
The 1970s gave us some crazy combinations, as the NBA struggled through its most tumultuous period. No one team really dominated that decade in either conference. But the 1980s were right back to where we expected. The Celtics dominated the East, while the Lakers controlled the West. But, by the end of the 1980s, the Detroit Pistons had finally made it past Boston and the Portland Trail Blazers overcame Los Angeles.
Then the Chicago Bulls had to get past the Pistons. Volumes have been written on how much beating the Pistons meant to Michael Jordan and his teammates. After years of Detroit body slamming Jordan and overpowering the Bulls, Chicago finally knocked off the Bad Boys and held control of the Eastern Conference for most of the 1990s. The single biggest challenger was probably the Knicks, who only got past the Bulls when Jordan decided to play baseball for a year.
Out West, the Rockets wrested control of the conference for a period, before the Utah Jazz took over. The San Antonio Spurs won the first post-MJ title, but then couldn’t get past the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. The Spurs finally beat the Lakers, as the Shaq/Kobe partnership crumbled, and, outside of the occasional blip, controlled the Western Conference until 2008.
The East saw teams come and go. The Indiana Pacers stepped up post-Bulls, only to be replaced by the Nets for a couple of seasons, then the Pistons took back control around a group of non-descript players who meshed into a team of All-Stars.
Then the NBA’s two most winningest franchises got good again. The Celtics swung the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen trades and overtook Detroit. At the same time, the Lakers were re-establishing themselves post-Shaq behind Kobe and Pau Gasol, as they overcame the Spurs.
That three year period saw LeBron James come to the realization he couldn’t get it done with that particular Cleveland Cavaliers team and he took his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat. Miami proceeded end the Celtics most recent run at the top of the East and rolled to four straight NBA Finals. At the same time, the Spurs topped the Lakers and held off the young Oklahoma City Thunder to take back control of the West.
Then, because no player can swing the balance of power in a conference quite like he can, James returned home and the Cavaliers have run the East. The Golden State Warriors emerged out West and overtook the Spurs. We now stand on the brink of matchup three in a trilogy that could conceivably still stretch out a couple more years.
Every conference champion has a rival in front of them. Someone they have to overcome. And on the backside of that run, a new team is ready to knock them off and replace them. Outside of the current Cavaliers, who didn’t have to overcome anyone by virtue of James heading home, almost every other champion had to take their lumps, feel the pain of losing and then get back at it.
For the Celtics, as many others have written or will write, the 2017 season was a success. But for the players, coaches and administrators in the locker room, there is real pain today. For the second time in the last three years, Boston has had to watch Cleveland advance in the playoffs on the Celtics home floor. Two years ago, the Celtics were a fun group that unexpectedly scrapped their way to the playoffs and lost to a juggernaut. No shame in that and many were just happy to be back playing games late in April.
This year, Boston was the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. They had an All-NBA player and others who might show up on various other awards lists. But, once again, they had to watch the Cavs celebrate in Boston. And while fans and media can immediately say, “It was a good year.” the team themselves are hurting. And they are looking at the Cavaliers, knowing that is where they want to be.
Flair also likes to say he is “Stylin’ and profilin” as the champ. Right now, the Cavs are “stylin’ and profilin’”. History tells us, same as in WWE, reigns aren’t long in the NBA. Something always comes along to break up great teams. Whether it be the “disease of more” as Pat Riley coined it, age, injuries or the team becomes too expensive to keep together, team break up or fall apart. Then someone steps up to take their place. It might not be next year, but no team is better positioned to knock off the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference in the near future than the Boston Celtics.
Since day one in Boston, Brad Stevens has talked about things being “a process.” The pain the Celtics feel today is part of that process. Now is the time to harness that pain and get ready to take the next step and join NBA history as the next team to overcome their rival on the way to the top. Because, as Ric Flair will gladly tell you, “to be the man, you gotta beat the man!” and LeBron James is that man.