Sylver: When the Celtics' new era arrived sooner than expected

Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports

Programming Note: On Saturday, 98.5 The Sports Hub will air Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and Cavaliers. Click here for the full on-air schedule.


By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

It took a five-year rebuild, but on May 13, 2018, the Celtics appeared poised to return to the top echelon of hoops, under circumstances nobody had imagined.

Over an 18-day span in the summer of 2013, Danny Ainge had dismantled a fading veteran team and rebooted the franchise. He traded disgruntled coach Doc Rivers to the Clippers for a first round pick. The day before the Fourth of July, he signed Butler's Brad Stevens to oversee the rebuild. And on July 12, 2013, he unloaded future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on the Brooklyn Nets for a trove of assets. The following year, the team won 25 games.

Looking at the standings, the Celtics made a linear improvement from there. But the ride from rock bottom back to contention was a wild one.

May 15, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) looks on during player introductions prior to game seven of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Washington Wizards at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

For 2014-15, Ainge drafted Marcus Smart and added veterans like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Evan Turner as 22 different players suited up in green. This plucky group won 40 games and the privilege of a first round sweep (and a sprained MCL for Crowder on a J.R. Smith box-out straight out of Street Fighter II) at the hands of the Cavaliers.

In 2015-16, they won 48 games but took just two from the Hawks in another first round playoff exit. That summer, the team made its biggest free agent signing since 1994 (a past-his-prime Dominique Wilkins), adding veteran pivot Al Horford. They also drafted Jaylen Brown.

In 2016-17, Boston won 53 games, its highest total in seven years, dispatching the Bulls and Wizards to again meet Cleveland (gunning for a third consecutive Finals appearance), this time in the Conference Finals. An Avery Bradley bouncing ball at the end of Game 3 secured Boston’s only win of the series. The C’s dropped Game 2 by 44 points and lost the clincher by 33. 

May 23, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) and Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) talk during the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the Eastern conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
May 23, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) and Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) talk during the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the Eastern conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Trader Danny dramatically altered the roster yet again that summer, signing Gordon Hayward, trading franchise player Thomas for Kyrie Irving, and drafting Jayson Tatum. Just four players returned from the previous season and expectations were high for another crack at the Cavs. But Ainge’s two biggest acquisitions would be in street clothes for the rematch. Hayward suffered a gruesome injury in his very first game in green, while Irving would be sidelined permanently with a month remaining in the regular season.

"It felt like everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," says The Sports Hub's Tim McKone. "Hayward goes down in the first six minutes of the season and then - after playing like an MVP - Irving goes down as well."

"I said - all right, well, this will be a quick spring for Celtics basketball," remembers Sports Hub producer Mason Sousa.    

November 20, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) before playing against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
November 20, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) before playing against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Incredibly, it wasn't. Brown and Tatum showed a glimpse of what was truly possible. Backup guard Terry Rozier had some huge games. Veterans Horford and Marcus Morris did what they'd done their entire careers. The Celtics knocked off the Bucks and 76ers to find LeBron blocking the way once more.

"He'd been to seven straight NBA Finals at the time," Sousa reflects. "Fun while it lasted, but this is where the run ends."

LeBron - er, Cavs GM Koby Altman - had traded away half the team at the deadline. While they still had one of the best players of all-time, it was a state of disarray compared to previous seasons. The Celtics were on the rise.

"It never felt like Boston was capable of winning the title, but the way the young guys played and competed you realized that Ainge had hit on both Brown and Tatum," McKone notes.

Dec 6, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) (left) and guard Jaylen Brown (7) celebrate during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Both would be instrumental in Game 1, as the Celtics built an 18-point after one quarter of play. Twenty-seven more hyper-competitive quarters would follow, as the series eventually went seven games.

Says Sousa, "This was the game where I said, 'Oh my God - we really have a chance to go back to the Finals.'"

You know what happened from there, but on May 13, 2018, you really had no idea what was ahead for the Boston Celtics. You might've figured the return of Irving and Hayward the following season would result in a Finals appearance. It didn't. But Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are still here and thriving. Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals was a thrilling chapter in the story of their rise to prominence.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk C's with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.