By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Under Brad Stevens, the Celtics have enjoyed a slow build towards success. In just his third year on the Boston bench, the team won 48 games and seemed destined to make some noise in the NBA Playoffs.
It was hard not to think that way after some impressive stretches during the regular season. Boston enjoyed thrilling wins over the Cavaliers and Warriors on their home courts. They played their best basketball after the calendar changed to 2016, winning 30 of their last 49 games and nine of their last 13 in the final months of the season.
But a funky tie-breaker landed them in the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and a trip to Atlanta in the first round. That scenario could have been avoided with just one more regular season win, which would have locked up the three seed and home court for the first round.
Instead, for the second year in a row, the Celtics were sent home in the first round of the playoffs, this time by way of a six-game ousting by the Hawks. What was supposed to be a few more weeks of competitive basketball and the next step in the team’s progress ended up leaving the C’s disappointed and frustrated. Injuries to Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk were key factors in limiting Boston’s ability to stretch the floor against Atlanta, and Jae Crowder playing around 70 percent certainly didn’t help, but the fifth seed was a situation the Celtics did not have to be in if they had a little more focus in the middle part of the season.
Hopefully, that’s a part of the team’s learning curve this time around.
Guard Isaiah Thomas, who led the team in scoring last season, said the loss to the Hawks left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and has provided plenty of fuel to make sure they don’t suffer the same disappointment in the upcoming campaign. The 2016-17 season got underway on Monday when the team strutted their stuff on media day, and then with their first official practice on Tuesday.
Once again the expectations are high, with Vegas picking the Celtics to finish with a win total in the 50s and potentially give the Cleveland Cavaliers a fight in claiming the Eastern Conference crown. For a team that had the luxury of taking baby steps without those lofty expectations the last few seasons, things are now much different.
Al Horford was plucked from the Hawks, bringing his veteran presence and basketball smarts to the team. His addition makes the Celtics a team that knows they’re oh-so-close to taking that next step. But they stumbled when it was right in front of them last April, and it’s going to take a lot of work to make that step forward this time around. That all begins in training camp and is fortified during the regular season.
While the chatter about the playoffs gets the green Kool Aid pumping, there are 82 important games before the Celtics can start that second part of their quest.
“This is a new season and we haven’t done anything yet. We have to stay hungry,” said guard Marcus Smart, heading into his third season in the NBA. “When we start getting complacent and listening to the outside, what projections say, if you let that creep in it will interrupt what you’re trying to do. We have to keep our mindset right.”
Thomas continues to exude confidence in the team he leads, with last year’s regular season success a glimpse of what could be.
“We know we are right there. We just have to put it all together,” said Thomas. “We know we have a special group with a lot of anticipation and expectations, but we’re not worried about those. We’re worried about the things we can control. That’s being ourselves, and whatever role is yours, do it at the highest level. We have a great group of guys who are going to put their egos aside and do what’s best for the team.”
And if any player needs to be reined back in, look no further than the new guy.
“The playoffs are not just given to you. It’s something you have to earn,” Horford said Monday. “You have to work your way into [the playoffs]. We can’t think that far ahead. Our biggest thing is to handle our business now. I’m looking forward to getting to that first two-a-day, starting to work with the guys and just start building that chemistry. That’s what I’m more concerned about.”
Celtics president Danny Ainge said a championship is always the objective for the Celtics organization, and it’s what the current squad is building towards. But he too knows another step needs to be taken before the Celtics enter that coveted conversation with the Cavs and Warriors. And while the players are anxious to talk about goals, expectations and what they hope to be a part of seven months from now, Stevens is doing his best to extinguish any pressure that may come with the hype.
“I got asked about a number of wins goal or a playoff goal, or a playoff rounds goal. Right when you define something as success and you reach it, if you don’t go any further you set the limit for your team,” he continued. “I’m certainly not into setting ceilings. I think that’s why you focus on what you can do, try to put your best foot forward and go into the next game thinking you can do that, you can win the game.”
They may be already talking and thinking about mid-April basketball, but the Celtics still have to prove themselves again in the regular season. It’s good to see a young team with such budding confidence entering a new season, but hopefully they learned last year that every game matters in the end.