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A Celtics decade defined by thwarted NBA Finals push

Potential championships lost at the beginning and end. Unforeseen excitement in between. Devastating injuries that left us saying “what if.” We look back on the essential moments of the 2010-2019 Celtics.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2010-2019 Boston Celtics marked my first decade of basketball I remember fully. It taught me the danger of buying into perceived certainties, how quickly things change and long-term contention is never inevitable.

This year, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley joined the Lakers. Kendrick Perkins, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett became TV characters. Ray Allen is still exiled from the ‘08 crew. Imagine all that transpiring when LeBron James seemed destined to never win a ring; when the Golden State Warriors sat among the desolate, losing franchises.

Championship-or-bust mindsets would render the decade a failure. It did not disappoint in its excitement though. Boston reached the playoffs in all but one season, and avoided a long-term rebuild through stellar trades. Danny Ainge nailed Jayson Tatum, Bradley, and Rondo picks to bolster teams that needed the depth.

Boston’s relevancy prompted higher TV ratings through 2018 — along with the what-ifs, devastating injuries and gut-wrenching losses near the top. Thrilling runs happened while some assumed Warriors dominance made trying futile, reaching within five wins of a title in 2012 and 2018. They had the talent in 2019.

Most franchises can hang an “almost” banner in their arenas. There’s no room in Boston’s. An uncertain future now awaits into the 2020’s. One that will influence how we view the missed opportunities of this past decade. How will you remember it?

The 2010 NBA Finals loss

Los Angeles Lakers Victory Parade Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The Celtics entered the playoffs riding a 27-27 stretch. After they took 3-0 leads on Miami and Orlando — ruining LeBron’s confidence in the Cavs — the Big Three nearly continued its run of never losing a playoff series. Pierce and Garnett could’ve become multi-time champs like fellow Boston legends.

Then Kendrick Perkins landed awkwardly between Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum minutes into Game 6, beginning a string of injuries that undermined the Celtics’ contending ability each season. A decade defined by agonizing endings did not save its worst for last.

Doc Rivers and the locker room had a chance to rebuild though, and built double-digit lead with Rasheed Wallace inside. It held into the fourth quarter, even as Pau Gasol hauled in nine offensive rebounds. The seconds ticking felt like hours. Then, Ron Artest delivered LA No. 16 with a rare three.

I don’t remember Game 6, 2008. I mourn Game 7, 2010 to this day.

The Perkins, Jeff Green trade and Rajon Rondo injury 1.0

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Celtics botched 2011 not by moving Perkins, but by not preparing themselves for life without him. They spent two seasons after the trade mulling a replacement, while the small-ball option awaited soon after. Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal deserved farewell tours, not the majority of center minutes. When Shaq’s health capsized, so did the team.

Both Danny Ainge and Perkins supported the Perkins trade later. He never posted positive per-100 splits again. Jeff Green gave the Celtics a long game, but Boston was still entrenched in the short term. Trading Perkins shook the locker room of the NBA’s top team at that moment. That sent shock waves that seeped into other areas, like Rondo’s attitude.

As DeAndre Jordan slammed through the paint through Nenad Kristic and Garnett, the Celtics clearly lost something more than a game to the Clippers. They sunk their heads and lost five of the next nine. Their 33-9 start capsized into a 23-17 finish.

Rondo’s one-armed domination of Miami in Game 3 created one of the moments of the decade. Perkins or not, a bum-elbowed Rondo plunged the Celtics into an unbridgeable talent disadvantage once the adrenaline settled.

Avery Bradley hurt and Ray Allen leaves

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics cost themselves Ray Allen for the brief remainder of the Big Three’s run by promoting Avery Bradley to starting minutes. The misfortune that followed was less about losing Allen, and more about not being able to see the bold move through.

Bradley laid the groundwork for upsetting the Hawks in 2012, recording 14 points, three steals and three blocks in Game 2 in Atlanta. He popped his shoulder out of place three times, before Celtics doctors shut him down following Game 4 against the 76ers.

Rivers coached a storm around Green’s lost season and Garnett’s aging. When Bradley went down, it was unimaginable that Pierce and company would take the Heat seven games. It didn’t make it any less painful that the Celtics lost with two chances to seal it.

LeBron’s rise to the top of the NBA demanded Boston’s demise. We only have a meme to look back fondly at.

Note: Bill Sy and I debated if the Celtics could’ve topped the Thunder even if they advanced. Oklahoma City’s roster looks so powerful now, with somehow no title to show for it. Without Green and Bradley in Boston, Perkins gets his revenge and Russell Westbrook wins a ring to me.

The 20-0 run and Brooklyn trade

Boston Celtics Introduce Humphries, Brooks, Bogans Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Danny Ainge could’ve pulled the plug on the Big Three then. Allen’s departure gave him, Rivers and the remaining cast an emotional incentive to attempt one last shot. Boston never had the longevity to play another 82 games and three rounds.

It’s hard to imagine a better deal than what Boston scored afterward with Brooklyn. So it was worth whatever they forewent to watch Pierce, Garnett and Rivers gut it out down 0-3 against the Knicks.

The Celtics held off a pair of 20-point performances by Raymond Felton to bring it back to one of the loudest TD Gardens of the decade. What followed tied a fitting bow on that era.

Down 75-49 two minutes into the fourth, Bradley turned corners and cut off three passes to spark a 20-0 run. Green and Pierce scored in transition. The Knicks looked ready to fold.

Iman Shumpert’s steal at 75-69 halted that momentum with 5:07 remaining. The washed season and loss mattered though. It showed that while championships are always the goal, it doesn’t mean the product can’t be enjoyable when that possibility is out of reach.

Hiring Brad Stevens

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As someone who didn’t follow college basketball before 2015, the news that Brad Stevens would replace Doc didn’t resonate the day before July 4. The Brooklyn trade soured moods. Rivers’ defection to the Clippers dominated the news.

Kevin O’Connor knew his potential, writing in our first post about the move, “Stevens is known for implementing complicated defensive schemes and has spent a great deal of time using analytics at Butler.”

Stevens made 2013-14 interesting, even as the slowest year of the decade. He bolstered Jordan Crawford to national status in the first month. Bradley became a shooter and Bass advanced, development that served the Celtics well when they returned to contention. Remember Vitor Faverani?

That year allowed me to go to over a dozen games for as cheap as $13. As much as I enjoyed the Big Three Celtics, that formed a lasting bond.

Watching Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger, through the awkwardness of rooting for losses, boosted my interest enough to start writing about them. I met O’Connor and other media members, the team emerged and it wouldn’t take long for winning to matter again. In early 2016, I joined CelticsBlog — a site I never imagined writing in college, never mind high school.

Isaiah Thomas

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Stevens’ coaching prowess allowed Ainge to swing 11 trades to disband the Big Three era. The prospect of a Rondo-led rebuild disappeared with his trade to Dallas. Green shipped toward Memphis. As the tsunami of deals flooded Woj, IT landed in Boston.

Nobody, even Ainge, could’ve imagined what followed. Thomas’ late-game scoring, immediate chemistry with Crowder and the team’s inability to fade away reversed their 20-31 start into a playoff berth.

They exceeded expectations in 2015-16, establishing themselves among the elite with a 109-106 win at Golden State. The Warriors lost only nine times that season. Boston bowed out in the first round against Atlanta as Bradley, Olynyk and Crowder all nursed injuries. But they caught the eye of upcoming free agents Al Horford and Kevin Durant.

Boston becomes the team of the decade if Durant chose it. The Tom Brady, Thomas and Olynyk dispatch couldn’t convert. “Almost” again. Horford alone affirmed the Celtics’ vision as the biggest signing in franchise history.


NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The league knew Thomas would get the ball every possession. They doubled, trapped and packed the paint. With a willing creator on-board in Horford, Thomas produced one of the great seasons in Celtics history, which transcended into an all-time Boston sports story.

He scored 28.9 points per game on 54.6% effective field goal shooting. His volume and shooting splits stood among the best of any NBA season. The Celtics topped the East at 53-29, less than four years after their tear down.

On March 15, Thomas inconspicuously collided with Karl-Anthony Towns as he throttled the Timberwolves. The Celtics soared toward the one seed, but nobody noticed the moment that marked the beginning of the end of Thomas’ time in Boston.

They escaped an 0-2 hole against Rondo and the Bulls (courtesy note: Rondo got hurt). As doubts emerged about Thomas’ playoff viability, Boston trounced Chicago 4-0 and split four games against a Washington team many favored despite the C’s record. Thomas poured 53 on DC in Game 5 to swing the series and affirm his season. John Wall won Game 6 at the buzzer, then Olynyk inexplicably set the Celtics apart in Game 7.

LeBron’s reign over the conference and Boston continued. Thomas departed in Game 2 down 68-29. Before he was announced fifth in MVP voting, IT played his final game in Boston.

Gordon Hayward

NBA: Boston Celtics-Press Conference Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Ainge revamped the Celtics with all the right moves in the 2018 off-season. He moved Bradley before his decline, netting Marcus Morris. The team avoided a last-minute Gordon Hayward pullback from leaving Utah and the Markelle Fultz no-brainer pick to draft Jayson Tatum. Ainge pried Kyrie Irving from Cleveland in August, aiding LeBron’s eventual departure from the East while improving Boston.

It all capsized in six minutes. Kevin Harlan spelled doom on the season, a prediction proved wrong. Though his commentary on Hayward’s broken ankle forecasted the short run a team poised to rule the NBA for a decade embarked on.

The 2018 season will never separate itself from 2019, but in a vacuum proved to be the most entertaining Celtics season of my lifetime. Irving and company ripped off 16 straight wins to avenge Hayward. Tatum thrived. The team retained the grittiness of the Isaiah era, posting all-time memorable comebacks against the Rockets in the regular season and the 76ers in the playoffs.

Confetti fell. Horford dismantled Joel Embiid. The Celtics beat Philly 4-1, overcoming Hayward, Irving and the possibility of Jaylen Brown’s absence. Instead of a feint chance against the Cavaliers, they won Game 1 in Boston, 108-83.

Boston took a 3-2 lead, the story of the decade. They narrowly missed their chance to seal the East in Cleveland, and Game 7 arrived with Boston undefeated at home. They started strong, only to yield untimely baskets to Jeff Green.

With 6:41 remaining, Tatum grabbed the ball, yammed on LeBron, causing Morris to scream in James’ face. Tatum knocked down a three next possession and momentum deemed the Cavs dead even only down 72-71. I should’ve known better.

Brown, Rozier, Morris and Smart chucked aimless threes. Tatum didn’t shoot the rest of the game. LeBron and George Hill sealed it by driving to the rim. Future contention seemed inevitable, easing the loss in the eyes of many with Irving and Hayward returning.

Narrator: “it wasn’t.”

The lame duck

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Everything around the Celtics set them up for championship contention in 2019. LeBron bolted west. The Warriors suffered friction and injuries. Milwaukee, even with an MVP season from Giannis Antetokounmpo, failed to reach the NBA Finals.

Yet the Celtics never looked further from the team we watched all decade. Any chance they got to fade in a close game, they did. No lead proved large enough to blow.

Irving’s impending free agency became the team’s dark cloud. Hayward shot poorly and frustrated to the point that charges of favoritism emerged. Nobody became happier after a 10-1 January stretch. Irving reversed on his preseason promise in New York and speculation surrounding a Kevin Durant meeting coincidentally proved fruitful.

Fans booed into March. A plane trip proved no more capable of righting the ship than signs of life earlier. The root rotted, so no leaf could survive.

Kemba Walker signed to salvage the remains. Boston now places its hope in the youth that drove the jubilation of 2018. Their faith rests in an open NBA, the waning importance of centers and any hope of Hayward rejuvenation.

A decade that toyed with the Celtics’ expectation of titles also saw new team-building difficulties emerge. Increased player power made it difficult for even Golden State to build a long-term winner.

Will rookies remain retainable into their primes? Will free agents still choose Boston? Can Stevens win with talent? All these questions carry into a new decade, beyond the simple short-term fix of Irving being gone.

Last decade provided plenty to remember. Even the worst makes for great stories and memories.

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