By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The end to the 2016-17 Boston Celtics was one giant dud. Well, three of them, actually.
Three giant duds on their home floor to boot. The Celtics weren’t supposed to beat the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but a little more fight would have been nice, even without their leading scorer in Isaiah Thomas.
Heck, it would have been nice for them to at least own a lead in one of their home games, if even for just a minute or two. Instead, the last images of the 2016-17 Celtics is of them suffering another 30-plus point loss in embarrassing fashion. It’s an ending that is going to sting for a bit, and it should.
But other than that nightmarish conclusion, the season was anything but an embarrassment.
Finally facing some lofty expectations in Year 4 of the Brad Stevens era, the Celtics answered the call. With preseason predictions putting their win total in the 50s, Boston went 53-29 en route to a division crown and a surprising No. 1 seed. They took advantage of a watered down Eastern Conference and made the most of their opportunity. They were led by nightly highlight reels from Isaiah Thomas who fittingly earned the nickname “King in the Fourth” for his offensive explosions in the final frame of games. Al Horford proved to be the veteran leader the young team needed. Avery Bradley continued to be one of the best two-way players in the game, and Jaylen Brown flashed some brilliance when given the opportunity. At just 20 years old, Brown will be a giant piece of Danny Ainge’s puzzle going forward, whether as a contributor on the roster or as a piece to a blockbuster trade.
Boston’s overachieving during the regular season was a welcome sign, but after a pair of first-round exits the last two seasons, the success and failure of the team hinged on how the Celtics fared in the playoffs. Anything short of a trip to the conference finals would have been a disappointment, and they succeeded on that front. After a rocky start and a 2-0 hole against the Chicago Bulls, the Celtics finally got out of the first round under Stevens. They took it a step further with a thrilling seven-game series win over the Washington Wizards. Thomas added to his amazing regular season, overcoming the death of his sister the day before the postseason and a crooked smile courtesy of the Wizards. His 53-point Game 2 against Washington will hold a place in Celtics history, and his 29 points in the deciding Game 7 are a bit more impressive given Thomas did his thing on a bad hip.
The playoffs were everything we wanted from the Celtics, up until that demolition at the hands of the Cavs. The Conference Finals were a reality check that proves the overachieving Celtics are still nowhere near the super teams of the NBA. They’re a solid team, but grit only gets you so far when overall talent takes over. That’s what makes a team great when it matters most, and it’s what the Celtics lack at the moment.
They are right at the top of that next tier. It’s not the best place to be in the NBA, but it’s certainly not the worst, given the unique situation Boston finds themselves in going forward. Armed with cap space and the No. 1 overall pick, Ainge has the luxury of assembling a “bridge” team that can compete now while also building for the future when the NBA is not owned by a man named LeBron or a super team out west. He has plenty of options on the table and the ammo to do what he wants, no matter which path he takes. This is an important summer ahead for the Celtics, one that should provide those fireworks that were promised years ago.
The closing scene is one we’d like to forget sooner rather than later, but the season was a giant step in the right direction. Making that next step will be the most difficult one, but the Celtics have put themselves in a great position to do so in the coming years.