By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Before you tell me: Yes, the Celtics came within one win of the NBA Finals without both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Given how this offense was rebuilt around these players, that’s incredible. And for that, these ragtag and fresh-faced Celtics get my undying respect and appreciation for a run that probably went a round and a half longer than it should have. It definitely went two full rounds longer than I thought it would given my state of mind after a Game 6 loss in Milwaukee.
They also lost the greatest superstar of this generation in the Cavaliers’ LeBron James. For all the theatrics of LeBron’s game, his vaguely annoying off-court persona (especially when behind a microphone), the 33-year-old James remains a cyborg sent to destroy the Eastern Conference. He is every Terminator villain put into the body of a man that plays all five positions.
James happily wields the Infinity Gauntlet of the National Basketball Association, and again, the Celtics were like The Avengers but with Captain America out with a broken ankle while Iron-Man recovers from knee surgery.
I’m not trying to discredit their losses or say that they’ve been overblown as a cop-out for the C’s shortcomings.
But, but, but…
Out to their most dominating start of the playoffs, the Celtics took the first two games of this series and had LeBron looking behind him trying to see if help was on the way. The C’s were then up 3-2, and had LeBron going back to Cleveland with a towel covering his face and looking as tired as a man vying to go to his eighth straight NBA Finals should look.
The Celtics were then up through the first quarter of Game 7. And at halftime of Game 7. Oh, and even when the Cavaliers grabbed a hold of the lead in the second half, the Celtics possessed two different fourth-quarter leads before the Cavs stormed back and time ran out on Boston’s season in a 87-79 final at TD Garden.
In other words, this series and this Game 7 should not have ended with LeBron bouncing the Celtics out of the picture.
Let’s start with the obvious: There’s a certain playoff mystique about the Celtics. Always has been, always will be. Which is my cheap way of saying that these things aren’t supposed to happen. Especially in Boston. Consider this: Cleveland’s Game 7 win over the Celtics was just the fifth loss in 25 Game 7s played in Boston. You have to go all the way back to the first round of the 2005 playoffs when the C’s lost to the Pacers to find a Game 7 letdown on Garden parquet. Before that? 1982 against the Sixers. That’s three in 36 years of basketball, and with a staggering 15-game and two-building sample size over that span.
This loss also made this the first series in franchise history in which the Celtics blew a 2-0 series lead.
I have a hard time falling back on the ‘Well, Irving and Hayward were out!’ excuse when the Celts didn’t need either of those two players to jump out to that 2-0 lead, regain a 3-2 series lead, and remain competitive for 40 minutes or so in Game 7. This is not to say that they would not have helped (I’m not that dumb, everyone), but when the 31-year-old Jeff Green is the third-best player in Game 7, your team is in the kind of trouble that shouldn’t require Irving and/or Hayward.
Now, maybe it was my own fault, but I believed.
Once this team didn’t crack to the pressure of a Game 5 against LeBron, and given the ‘last hurrah’ vibes that undoubtedly surrounded Cleveland’s Game 6 win and Kevin Love’s absence from Game 7, I bought in. I began to run all the scenarios through my head with real hope for a Houston-Boston fourth-round war. One that seemed legitimately winnable.
With the way that the Green bounced back every single time we doubted them (especially this postseason), how could I not?
How could you not see the Celtics erasing a five-point deficit late in the fourth quarter of a win-or-go-home Game 7 with back-to-back three-pointers, likely from two-thirds of their Jaylen Brown-Terry Rozier-Jayson Tatum trio? And at the expense of a player that’s tortured them for six years. It would have been the most 2018 Celtics thing to 2018 Celtics.
Instead, with the exception of the 20-year-old Tatum — a
kid man that officially entered true ‘untouchable’ territory with his performance in this series — those high-ceiling players people openly gushed over faltered. And at the worst possible time.
Behind Tatum’s 9-for-17 night, Brown connected on just five of his 18 attempts, with a 3-for-12 mark from deep. Rozier, meanwhile, went just 2-for-14, and failed to connect on any of his 10 three-point attempts. That ghastly mark from three-point land made Rozier the first player in Celtic playoff history to attempt at least 10 three-point attempts and fail to drop any of them, outdoing the 1-for-10 Isaiah Thomas posted against the Bulls in round one last spring.
And as a team, the Celtics connected on just seven of their 39 attempts from behind the arc. That 17.9 percent success rate from deep made their Game 7 effort their worst night shooting the three since Game 2 against the Hawks in 2016. Overall, and out of 287 playoff games with at least one three-point shot made, that 17.9 percentage ranked 258th overall. Woof.
Everything we initially feared at the start of the postseason ended up coming back to haunt the Celtics.
But by the time that it showed up, you had already pushed that possibility out of your mind and embraced what a thrilling ride you were on, with or without the Celtics’ one-two punch.
Somehow, someway, this ‘bonus’ of an improbable run became a choke by the team that didn’t have the personnel to choke. Something that’s difficult to accept now, and likely won’t be any easier to stomach as we enter the dog days of summer.
Or not until Kyrie and Hayward officially come back, anyway.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.