When I wrote about why I wanted the Celtics to make the playoffs, there was one thing I should have mentioned as a possible downside: they could get swept in such an embarrassing fashion that it would show how far the team was from being a contender. This could do the following: discourage potential free agents from signing in Boston this summer, rattle the confidence of the young players on the roster and hurt their development, and dishearten Brad Stevens about thinking he could win with this team and potentially push him back into the college game.
While the Celtics were swept in their first-round series by the Cavaliers, it was far from an embarrassing effort. The team competed every minute and never gave up. There were even stretches, however brief, where the Celtics outplayed the Cavs and went on scoring runs. (With LeBron on the floor, too!) Boston went toe-to-toe with arguably the best team in the conference and lost four hard-fought games in a row.
The final scores weren’t particularly close, with the games decided by 13, eight, eight and eight points, respectively, but in each of those games, the Celtics made a concerted push to attack those leads to the bitter end. Sunday, with Boston down 16 with less than three minutes remaining, they scratched and clawed their way back into the game, bringing the lead down to six with 30 seconds left, thanks to Isaiah Thomas interfering with LeBron James’s inbound pass. Was this against the rules? Yes. Should the officials have called it? Certainly. Would James have done the same thing in Thomas’s position? Absolutely he would have. LeBron is a competitor, and if his choices were between losing and trying to get away with a foul, he’d choose the foul every time.
When you’re staring down elimination, you have to take chances like that, and the fact that the Celtics were ready to take those chances means they’re at least in the right mindset to win playoff games. That mentality is hugely important moving forward. The team didn’t back down or defer to Cleveland, because that’s not how you beat another team. Jae Crowder covered LeBron as well as could be expected and wasn’t afraid to get physical with one of the league’s most imposing players. Unfortunately for Boston, games aren’t won on moxie; they’re won on talent and skill.
The Celtics showed they had the will to win, but they lacked the ability. Their players will improve; Gerald Wallace is the only player over 30 on the roster and many of the young players still have room to grow, although they’re still a long way from contending with the league’s elite teams. If Boston can put more talent on the court next year, they should see more playoff success than a first-round sweep.