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‘It doesn’t stop hurting’: The Celtics’ season has reached its end, and with it comes optimism tinged with regret

Ime Udoka called Marcus Smart in after things started to unravel in the second quarter.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

As the large black stage was rolled on to the parquet floor and the Warriors put on their crisp, white NBA champions hats, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown stood near their bench and watched, seemingly unsure what to do next.

Everything about this experience has been new for these Celtics stars, and this moment was no different.

Eventually, Tatum began wading through the families and photographers and sought out Warriors players to congratulate. Then Brown did the same before walking through a tunnel toward the locker room with a towel draped over his head.

Golden State’s trophy presentation began moments later, and many fans in green stayed at their seats to record the moment with their phones. They were probably crushed by the 103-90 Game 6 loss in these NBA Finals, but it’s also not every day one gets to witness greatness. And these Warriors, who have now won four titles in the last eight years, certainly qualify.

They are also everything the Celtics hope to become, and for six long, grueling games, Boston got an up-close and sometimes painful view of it all. It was a lesson in real-time.


“It don’t stop hurting,” center Robert Williams said. “It never stops hurting until we’re back in this position again.”

Al Horford winces as the final minutes on the clock wind down Thursday night at TD Garden.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Until then, they’ll just be left with memories of a night they would probably like to forget. As players completed interviews in a quiet room in the bowels of TD Garden, the cigar smoke from the Warriors’ celebration wafted in.

When Tatum finished his session and started to leave the arena, he passed several members of the Warriors traveling party who were soaked in beer and champagne, and smelled like it. Dell Curry, the former NBA sharpshooter who is also the father of Stephen, perhaps the greatest NBA sharpshooter of all-time, was at the end of that group.


“Where are the Coronas at?!” he yelled to no one in particular.

There was no such joy in the Celtics’ locker room after the loss. Players said it was both quiet and emotional. But the frustration about the missed opportunity seemed to quickly be tinged with appreciation for how far this team has come, and optimism about the future.

“Nobody even had us being here, let alone in the playoffs,” guard Marcus Smart said. “It definitely is tough. But it’s definitely one of those things we’ve been through hell to get here, and you take that. You know what I’m saying? We’ve got to use that.”

In January, this team was in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and under .500. A run such as this one seemed unfathomable then.

In the playoffs, Boston certainly tempted fate. It survived two elimination games in the semifinals against the Bucks, then went on the road to win Game 7 in the conference finals against the Heat. But this Golden State team left no room for flaws. Instead, it pounced on them.

“What I said to the group is there are levels,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said, “and you can see the difference in Golden State.”

It seems like months ago that Boston held 1-0 and then 2-1 leads in this series, flipping from slight underdogs to favorites who had ripped homecourt advantage away from these mighty Warriors. Boston had not lost consecutive games in these playoffs, and as long as it continued that trend, it would win the franchise’s first championship since 2008.


Instead, the Celtics closed the season by losing three games in a row for the first time since December, a darker time in a year that had eventually become quite bright.

“Tough day for Boston,” said Brown, who had 34 points. “Tough day for the Celtics. But, I don’t know what to say.”

Tatum appeared particularly gloomy afterward. This season the 24-year-old forward emerged as an MVP candidate, and these playoffs were viewed as his chance to truly ascend to superstardom.

Although he did help guide Boston to the brink of a title, this postseason was not his best work. Turnovers, missed shots, and complaints to officials sometimes outnumbered more enjoyable moments. He was 6 for 18 with five turnovers Thursday.

Tatum vowed to do more and come back better. Udoka acknowledged that this series was “a rough one” for Tatum, but he said he would learn from what it was like to have defenses build entire plans to stop him.

“It’s just continuing to grow and understand you’re going to see this the rest of your career,” Udoka said. “This is just a start.”

Curry, of course, has been operating under such a spotlight for years, and he continues to be unbothered by any of the hindrances and distractions and challenges that follow. The 34-year-old guard capped a masterful Finals performance with 34 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists en route to becoming one of the easiest choices for MVP ever.


“It’s special,” he said. “Just all the work that went into it, the faith and belief and everybody in that locker room that’s getting to spray champagne around the locker room, everybody mattered in that process.”

There were fleeting moments Thursday when it seemed that this season would last for a few more days, with a Game 7 in San Francisco, where any fluky moment could make a Celtics championship possible.

Boston surged to a 14-2 lead, and the fans began to believe. But the Warriors punched back quickly and seized control with a silencing 21-0 run. Golden State led by as many as 22 points midway through the third period before Boston responded with one final surge.

A 3-pointer by Brown with 5:34 left in the fourth pulled Boston within eight, 86-78. But a 3-pointer by Andrew Wiggins, who blanketed Tatum throughout this series, was followed by a steal by Klay Thompson that led to a Draymond Green layup. The fact that this game was clinched by a turnover was fitting for the celtics, because those miscues were their undoing this postseason. They had 23 of them in this game.

“Every possession is purposeful,” Williams said. “It seemed the other locker room realized that; we didn’t. They had a meaning to everything they were doing.”

About two hours after the game ended, after Curry had finished yet another interview about yet another title, he walked down a corridor wearing his white hat and carrying the championship and MVP trophies. Down another long hallway, near the empty Celtics locker room, there was just silence.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.