This is not to take anything away from their otherwise incredible season, but the Boston Celtics choked.
The Celtics defied and exceeded expectations despite losing their two best players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — to injury. No one expected them to reach the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals amid all of that, a notion backed by Vegas.
But convincing wins in Games 1 and 2 should have adjusted those expectations. Same goes for a Game 5 win that left them needing to split the final two games. And when Boston held a 12-point lead midway through the second quarter at home in Game 7, the expectation should have been that this team was heading to the NBA Finals.
And then they choked.
A historically woeful shooting performance did in the Celtics. Had the Celtics shot 10-for-39 from 3-point land, that still would have been atrocious … and it still would have been enough to win. Had the Celtics kept the pedal to the metal in the second quarter, the Cavs almost certainly would have wilted. Had Jayson Tatum demanded the ball more in the second half, that probably would have been enough to win.
None of that happened, though.
Saying the Celtics choked in Game 7 takes nothing away from their other accomplishments. If anything, it reinforces them. They did enough to make everyone believe they should have won the Eastern Conference. That’s impressive, but it should have been more. You don’t get to have everyone tell you how great you are for four or five weeks and then come up woefully short in the biggest game of the season.
The future is still bright, and bigger things are on the horizon. All of these things can be true.
Here are a few other things we learned from that Game 7 loss.
— Kyrie Irving (obviously) would have made a world of difference
Yes, the Celtics are Kyrie Irving’s team. No, they shouldn’t trade him this offseason. This should be painfully obvious after the Celtics’ gag, and to suggest otherwise borders on embarrassing. But there were multiple instances in Game 7 alone when the Celtics would have loved to have Irving on the court.
Maybe he wouldn’t be impervious to the puzzlingly dreadful and seemingly contagious shooting bug that felled Boston in Game 7. Would you be willing to bet against him, though? Irving’s track record speaks for itself, and there were plenty of times in that game where it would have been helpful to have someone step up and hit a big shot.
Irving’s ability to create off the dribble and get to the rim also would have been an asset. Boston’s offense got stagnant at times, which was only compounded by the sheer inability to make a jump shot. Irving could have demanded the ball, put his head down and got to the rim, which almost certainly would have stemmed the second-half tide.
(They still should have won.)
— No, this wasn’t LeBron James’ greatest performance
LeBron James’ historically good postseason was extended by at least four games, thanks in part to his brilliance, but he likely would be checking out real estate in Philly, L.A. or Houston had Boston, you know, hit a few shots in the second half. He was by far the best player on the court, and hindsight will do this performance wonders. But again, it’s OK for more than one thing to be true: LeBron was a cold-blooded killer, but he also got as much help from the Celtics’ ineptitude as he did his supporting cast.
— The Celtics will be and should be favored to win the East next season
As long as everyone is healthy, the Celtics should be in the NBA Finals a year from now. It doesn’t matter where LeBron goes, even if he ends up in Philly. Players like Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart (if he returns) and Marcus Morris are very, very good role players. But put them in spots where they need to carry games, and there’s obviously a ceiling. With Irving and Gordon Hayward back in the mix along with Al Horford, and another year under the belts of Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the pieces should fall into place very nicely for the Celtics. Once everyone finds their role and settles in — with Brad Stevens pushing the buttons — the sky is the limit for the Celtics, who will not only be the favorite in the East, but they should also be on a very short list of teams capable of winning it all next year.