When the Celtics reached the NBA Finals last season, they made it clear that the run was made possible by all of the experiences that preceded it.
When they missed the playoffs in 2014, it figured to be the start of a rather lengthy rebuild. Instead, then-president of basketball operations Danny Ainge fast-tracked the revival with timely trades, good draft picks, and some lottery luck, and in 2015, the Celtics started an eight-year run of playoff appearances that will stretch to nine in a few months.
In the earlier years, battles against LeBron James and the Cavaliers became a constant. Cleveland swept the Celtics in the first round in 2015. Marcus Smart is the only remaining player from that Boston squad.
Then in 2017, with rookie Jaylen Brown and Al Horford in the fold, the Celtics lost to Cleveland in five games in the conference finals. The following season, Jayson Tatum’s rookie year, Cleveland overcame a 3-2 deficit and escaped with a Game 7 win at TD Garden to advance to another Finals matchup against the Warriors.
“Just to go deep in the playoffs like that, go to a Game 7, we were battle-tested,” Tatum said. “I think gaining that experience in my first year has really helped me out and helped our team out a lot, because we’ve been in big moments. We’ve succeeded a lot of times in big moments, and we’ve come up short.
“But we’ve been able to learn from and take something from each playoff series each time we went: conference finals three or four times, then the Finals last year. So we’ve been in a number of big games and I think just gaining that early experience can only help you in the present time now, and for the future.”
James’s playoff history against the Celtics predates the franchise’s current iteration, of course. During the era of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, James faced the Celtics twice with the Cavaliers and twice with the Heat.
But in those series, the Celtics had more veterans and experience. The current Celtics faced off against James in their more formative years, benefiting from the impactful moments while they were trying to build toward something big.
“I think that experience is the best teacher,” Brown said. “Early on, being able to be thrown into high-intensity moments where everybody’s watching against some of the best players in the world have kind of led to cultivating the experiences that we get to see now. The growth, the amount of basketball maturity, how to win games, all of that comes into play. So it should be fun getting to play against arguably the greatest player of all time in LeBron James.”
James plays for the Lakers now, so a chapter could be added to his Boston playoff history only in the Finals.
And with Los Angeles owning a 23-26 record and sitting in 13th place in the Western Conference, that seems to be an extreme long shot. But it is no fault of James’s.
The 38-year-old is in the midst of one of his finest seasons, averaging 29.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 7 assists while shooting 50.7 percent from the field.
The Lakers have at least shown some signs of life recently. They have won three of their last four games, star Anthony Davis returned to face the Spurs Wednesday after missing five weeks because of a foot injury, and they just fortified their roster by trading with the Wizards for Rui Hachimura, who had 12 points and 6 rebounds in his Lakers debut Wednesday.
Aside from the presence of James and the resumption of perhaps the NBA’s most storied rivalry, Saturday night’s game brings some added urgency for the Celtics, who suddenly find themselves in a three-game losing streak, tied for their longest this season.
It’s hardly time for panic. The road losses to the Magic and Heat came while they were severely undermanned, the overtime setback against the Knicks could possibly have been avoided if Brown had connected on a pair of free throws in the final seconds, and they still own the best record in the NBA.
Still, there will be motivation for the Celtics to reverse this trend before it becomes something more concerning.
“Just trying to find that consistent effort, that consistent execution that’s needed to win,” Derrick White said, “because it’s not easy to win in this league. And there’s a lot of good teams, so we’ve got to be more consistent.”