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Adam Kaufman

In Appreciation of the Playoff-Bound Celtics

Brad Stevens 8.jpg


COMMENTARY

Change has a knack for affecting one’s perspective with regard to time.

Ask even the most ardent Celtics fan, and that green-goggled, jersey-wearing, Lucky supporter would probably pause if you pointed out it was just a one-year postseason absence for the Green now that this year’s club has officially punched its ticket.

One year.

Felt like an eternity, didn’t it?

Of course, so much has changed since the seventh-seeded Celtics fell in a six-game series to the Knicks in the spring of 2013, and that’s ignoring the fact the present-day 17-win Knicks are the second-worst team in the NBA.

That May 3 series finale marked the last time Doc Rivers would coach a game for the Celts. The last time future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would play a contest in Green. The last time Jeff Green would appear in a playoff series for Boston. The last time an injured Rajon Rondo would watch a postseason set from the C's bench.

Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass both started for the Celtics in that series, but they’re the only remaining holdovers from the team’s last banner-chasing roster. Evan Turner, Gerald Wallace, and Jae Crowder are the only other players to have played in the postseason.

Dozens have come and gone, via trade, free agency, or buyout. Beyond Bradley and Bass, little else is familiar for the 17-time champs, other than the name on the front of their jerseys.

Even-tempered and analytically-influenced second-year coach Brad Stevens is in charge now, and the former Butler bench boss has only started the process of putting his fingerprints on his rebuilding team. A frustrating and often demoralizing 25-win rookie campaign for the coach is long in the rearview and while a great deal of roster redundancy remains, Stevens and team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have found the right players to use that to the team’s advantage.

Boston doesn’t have a superstar; it doesn’t even have an All-Star. It might have the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in midseason acquisition and two-time Player of the Week Isaiah Thomas, who’s been a catalyst for the Celtics’ success since the trades of Rondo and Green and what was thought to be a season-ending injury for embattled forward Jared Sullinger.

Though technically a reserve, Thomas is the finisher Ainge was seeking following last season when he mentioned the club’s need for a late-game closer on offense and a rim-protector on defense. Boston’s still lacking that interior defender but, collectively, the Celts have surged to the middle of the pack defensively in a league of players motivated by offense.

The fact is Stevens’ ever-changing roster – one that’s endured 11 trades and 41 roster players since the start of the league year, and significant injuries to Sullinger, Thomas, Kelly Olynyk, and Marcus Smart – is littered with interchangeable parts. That might typically be viewed as a problem, as it was last year, but Stevens has thrived with a group where starters and bench players are such in label only and not responsibility. Any player, even other team’s castoffs like Crowder or Jonas Jerebko, is capable of leading the Celtics in scoring on a given night. Just try to predict who’s going to get a pivotal game’s last shot or the ball out of a timeout.

The Celtics have gone from a group of individuals to a unit.

That balance, perfected by teams like the Spurs and Hawks, has made the C’s a building threat in the East. Since Feb. 3, Stevens’ squad – once 16-30 – has 22 wins, which trails only the West-dominant Warriors and Spurs for the most in the NBA.

Alas, with two games left in the regular season, the celebration is almost over.

Fresh off a home-and-home sweep of what was effectively the Cavaliers’ bench, Boston will almost certainly get a fully-staffed Cleveland roster in the opening round of the postseason, the same group that thumped the Celts 110-79 on Mar. 3 and led by 42 entering the fourth quarter. Maybe, if all goes well, the likely seventh-seeded Green will steal a game, but it might be unrealistic to expect even that. That Cavs are championship contenders, built to reach the conference finals at the very least. The Celts were picked by most to finish in the lottery, a team to be celebrated if it won 30 games. If they take their last two over the Raptors and Bucks, they’ll claim 40.

It doesn’t matter what happens between now and what expects to be a busy offseason for Ainge, who has a treasure trove of draft picks over the next handful of years and the salary cap flexibility to chase one or two marquee free agents. Simply qualifying for the postseason, even with a sub-.500 record in a depleted East, is gravy for an unwaveringly supportive fan base and the Celtics deserve the recognition. Unlike their Garden roommates, forced to sit out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the C’s have rarely lacked energy and played hard for their coach and each other virtually every single night this year. While some stragglers have maintained the team’s best interests lie in a better draft position, the C’s have fought for everything they’ve earned and only improved every time one of their most talented players went missing.

I hope to be wrong about this inevitable upcoming series with the Cavs and that it proves to be at the very least competitive before the players collect their things for a summer of uncertainty. Occasionally, the teams we expect the least from are the most fun to watch because of that boulder-size chip on their shoulders from all of the times they heard, “No,” or “You can’t”.

The unpredictable 2014-15 Celtics are no exception. But their inspired playoff entry is most certainly the exception to everyone’s preseason analysis.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman and email me here.

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