The game of basketball is largely measured by wins and losses, but the Boston Celtics’ Game 7 win over the Washington Wizards on Monday night won’t have a lasting impact on their short- and long-term success.
It was nice to see Kelly Olynyk explode for 26 points, Marcus Smart come up with yet another series of hustle plays down the stretch, and Isaiah Thomas deny the odds once again, but everything that happens on the court from this point forward is gravy for the current iteration of the Celtics. They won’t -- and shouldn’t -- look the same when the 2017-18 season tips off this fall. Most NBA teams, in fact 26 of them, would love to have a spot in the conference finals, but the Celtics are playing a much longer game.
Brad Stevens has been put in a number of different coaching situations during his four years, including major roster turnover early on as Ainge executed the early stages of what has thus far been a wildly successful rebuild. It’s not surprising that just moments after his biggest win as a coach, Stevens perfectly explained the current path the franchise is on.
“We just kind of stay in our lane and try to get better and let the chips fall where they may,” Stevens said. “If Kelly doesn’t go nuts and [the Wizards] throw in a couple more threes, we’re not talking about the next step, right? I think the bottom line is that our desire is to continuously improve to give ourselves the best chance to be there as many times as possible.”
That is exactly why Ainge has been patient in unloading assets for a superstar and hasn’t succumbed to the pressure to finally acquire one like so many in his place would have by now. In his mind, none of the moves on the table in the last 12 to 18 months would have given the Celtics the best chance to be there as many times as possible, as Stevens put it.
Now the Celtics are here and little else can be asked of them. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are waiting. The Celtics might be deeper, but the Cavaliers will have the two, maybe even three, best players in the series and that’s far too much in today’s game.
Thomas is already building a case against those who have, and will, doubt the Celtics saying, “We know it’s going to be tough, but at this point anything can happen. They didn’t give us a chance in this series. They didn’t give us a chance when we was down 2-0 to Chicago. We got the No. 1 seed and they didn’t give us a chance.”
The hard truth is that the Celtics have achieved as much as they can this season. It will be compelling to see what they can do against the Cavaliers and who on the roster shows an ability to give them hope against the defending champions going forward. To this point, Avery Bradley and Jaylen Brown have looked more important to the future than Jae Crowder and Terry Rozier. Will that remain the case against the team that has what the Celtics ultimately want?
What will the Cavaliers do to expose Thomas defensively? There are fewer places to hide him with LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love surrounded by long shooters. Individual performances in the Eastern Conference Finals will mean a lot as Ainge picks and chooses who will be remain a part of the team’s core going forward.
The Toronto Raptors made a series of moves at the deadline with the Cavaliers in mind, acquiring P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka in trades. Those moves looked great in February, but the Cleveland made short work of them in four games. Perhaps Ainge could have used the Brooklyn pick and young players for someone like Paul George or Jimmy Butler a few months ago when the Cavaliers looked vulnerable, but he didn’t and the Celtics will ultimately be much better for it.
They’ve fulfilled all expectations and will only get measurably better over the next several years. At that point, the ceiling will have been pushed much higher.