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What Could Have Been? The 2018 Boston Celtics

The 2018 Celtics got to the brink of the NBA Finals before falling to LeBron once again

2018 NBA Playoffs: Cleveland Cavaliers vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As part of SB Nation’s “Titleless” series, we’re taking a look at a Boston squad that came back to life more than The Undertaker. The 2017-18 Celtics check in as part of the ”They Were Robbed” bracket as the #13 seed. When you look back at recent Boston teams, “what could have been?” is the question that comes to mind most for this squad.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the summer of 2017, Danny Ainge rebuilt an already solid Celtics team on the fly. From 2015 through 2017, Boston had overachieved behind Isaiah Thomas and a bunch of other castoffs. That group made three consecutive playoff appearances, including the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017, but never had enough to get past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Ainge made a series of moves that returned just four players from the 2016-17 team to the 2017-18 roster. When the dust settled, only Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart were still in green. The advent of Two-Way contracts meant that 13 new players joined the team in the course of one summer.

Everything started with a trade ahead of the 2017 NBA Draft. After lottery luck had given Boston the first overall pick for just the second time in franchise history, Ainge traded back. Boston sent the first pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for the third overall pick and a future pick from the Sacramento Kings. It all worked out, as Ainge picked up an extra pick and still drafted his guy Jayson Tatum at three. And it shaved a little bit of money off Tatum’s rookie scale contract as well.

The roster turnover continued with the culmination of a long-planned pursuit of Gordon Hayward. With Hayward in the fold, that meant all of the team’s free agents had to go. Multiple key contributors from 2017 were renounced.

As part of his cap space maneuvering, Ainge also traded the longest-tenured Celtic, Avery Bradley, to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris and his slightly smaller salary. The Celtics also used the room exception to add Morris’ former Detroit teammate Aron Baynes to backup Horford.

Just when it looked like the roster was set, Ainge took the biggest swing of his time leading Boston’s front office. The Celtics sent the Cavaliers Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder Ante Zizic and the last of the Brooklyn first-round picks for Kyrie Irving.

All of a sudden, Boston had three All-Stars in Irving, Hayward and Horford, a group of solid, defensive-minded vets and promising youngsters in Brown and Tatum. Visions of Banner 18 immediately began dancing in everyone’s head.

Opening night, those hopes came crashing down at the same time Gordon Hayward did. Five minutes into his first game with the Celtics, Hayward went up for an alley-oop and was clipped by Crowder. He landed awkwardly and by the time the camera panned to Hayward, his left foot was pointing in the wrong direction.

Just like that, Boston’s title hopes took a hit.

The Celtics rallied and made it a competitive game, but lost in Cleveland. The next night, they dropped their home opener to the Milwaukee Bucks. It looked like a promising season was derailed just as it started.

After a day off to regroup, Brad Stevens led his troops to their first win of the season on October 20th at the 76ers. It’d be over a month before Boston would lose again.

The Celtics won 16 straight games. All of a sudden, the questions were “Just how good are these Tatum and Brown kids?” and “Maybe we’re better off going big with Baynes starting?”

Irving was dazzling. He was providing everything Thomas did and sometimes more. Horford’s calm demeanor and all-around game were brilliant. Tatum and Brown made mistakes young players make, but infused youthful energy on a nightly basis. Smart, Morris, Baynes and Rozier formed a backbone of a tough team. They’d happily knock you down and then let you know there was more of that coming.

In late-January/early-February, Irving missed a few games with knee soreness. It popped back up a month later in early-March. Irving missed another game, played the next one, and then a few nights later exited after just 16 minutes against Indiana. We didn’t know it right then, but Irving’s season was over. The hardware in his knee from a previous surgery needed to be removed. That procedure ended Irving’s first season in Boston after just 60 games.

The Celtics were down both of their major offseason additions. The team was 46-21, but the renewed title hopes were once again dashed.

Only, no one told Boston they were supposed to pack it in. The Celtics lost a two-overtime heartbreaker at home to the Washington Wizards. Then, like they did to start the season, they ripped off a win steak. Six straight wins later and Boston was firmly in second place in the Eastern Conference. That stretch included a period where Horford had to initiate the Boston offense because all of the point guards were hurt.

In the playoffs, this group of scrappy upstarts were challenged by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. Each team won all the games on their home floor, ending with the Celtics rolling over the Bucks in Game 7 in Boston. Terry Rozier played the best basketball of his time in green in those wins over Milwaukee.

The second round featured a test from the division-rival Sixers. Boston won their first two at home. Game 3 was a classic battle. Boston was up by two points with 1.7 seconds to play. Then this happened:

Belinelli made the shot, but he tied the game, not won it. That confetti dropped too early and gave Boston renewed life. The Celtics took a commanding 3-0 series lead with an overtime win. Two games later, Boston closed it out at home.

For a second straight season, the Celtics were back in the East finals against the Cavs. Boston won the first two games in fairly convincing fashion. It looked like the Celtics just might find themselves in the Finals after all. James had other plans. Cleveland rebounded at home by blasting by Boston by 30 points in Game 3 and then winning Game 4.

The Celtics once again handled the Cavs in Boston fairly easily in Game 5. Back in Cleveland for Game 6, James and old friend Jeff Green took control in the second quarter and the Cavs forced Game 7.

In their storied history, the Celtics have had lots of near misses and heartbreaking losses. Larry Bird’s miss against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 in 1987. Paul Pierce missing two late free throws against the New Jersey Nets in Game 4 in 2002. Game 7 of the 2010 Finals against the Lakers. The Game 6 and Game 7 losses against the Miami Heat that effectively ended the Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen era.

I’ll put Game 7 of 2018 up against all of those in the tough loss rankings.

The 2018 team was left for dead twice. Hayward went down and the season was over. Then there was hope. Irving went down, and the season was over again. Then they rallied again. They beat the Bucks and Sixers. They had the Cavaliers on the ropes.

Then Boston had the coldest-shooting night they may ever have in TD Garden.

People remember James being dominant for the Cavs and he was. Game 7 is also remembered for Jeff Green giving Cleveland the kind of performance he only gave Boston on random Tuesdays in January. But what really lost Boston the game was their utter inability to put the ball through the net.

As a team, the Celtics went 7-of-39 from behind the arc. Brown and Rozier combined to go 3-of-22. Trip after trip, Boston would move the ball for an open look only to watch it clang off the rim.

Yet, they battled. The forever-19-year-old rookie Tatum put the Celtics on his back for the last time in the 2018 season during this stretch:

Then James reminded everyone who he is and the Cavaliers salted the game away at the free throw line over the final few minutes.

The 2018 team will always conjure the question “What could have been?” for a couple of reasons. What if Hayward doesn’t get hurt on opening night? What if Irving doesn’t go down? What if just a couple more of those three-pointers fell in Game 7 against Cleveland? That Boston team was uniquely positioned to match up with the unbeatable Golden State Warriors because the Celtics were just as capable of playing small-ball as the Warriors.

This season also spawned some other questions: Do the Celtics really need Hayward and his max deal? (That one still gets asked today!) Is Boston better without Kyrie Irving? (That one has been answered with a fairly resounding yes.) And, entering the next season, just how many games is this crazy-deep team going to win? (Not as many as there were far too many mouths to feed.)

But maybe instead of asking “What could have been?” and a bunch of questions about who is needed, we should have been asking “What will be?”

With the benefit of being two years in the future we now know Jayson Tatum going chest-to-chest with LeBron James was just a glimpse of him being Boston’s next superstar. Jaylen Brown stepping up throughout the season showed a sophomore who would grow into an All-Star candidate by his fourth year. Marcus Smart is loved and trusted for all the same awesome reasons now as he was two years ago.

So, when you ask “What could have been?” about the 2018 Boston Celtics, the answer is: Maybe a championship. But really, it was just the first step to Banner 18. And it isn’t because of the high-priced veteran All-Stars who were imported. It’s because of our guys Tatum, Brown and Smart. When Banner 18 is raised, those three will be a part of it. And 18 will come in part because of the lessons learned in 2018.

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