It was apparent about 14 minutes into Game 1 that the Cavaliers were a considerably better team than the Celtics, that the underdogs would be hard-pressed to steal a game in the first-round series.
Cleveland quickly wiped out an 8-point second-quarter deficit and turned it into an 8-point halftime lead with an effortless flurry. The Celtics constantly responded to Cleveland surges in the series but were never really close to winning any of the four games.
Such was the case again Sunday when the Celtics rallied from a 21-point deficit and were a couple of possessions from making it even. But it was as if LeBron James’s large palm was on the forehead of the Leprechaun. It wasn’t the Celtics’ time, not yet, at least. They lost, 101-93, their third 8-point loss of the series.
There is much work to be done. This playoff experience was essential, pivotal for a younger roster and even more youthful coach. This was the first step, but the second step is not promised.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge may not look to “Summertime” with the same vigor as Will Smith (or the Fresh Prince) did close to 25 years ago, but that is when this Celtics roster is going to be strengthened.
This series was tantalizing for an organization that wants to return to elite status, but nothing more is promised. The Celtics, like any organization, will have to work feverishly — and get some breaks — to reach the next level.
The Celtics have enough salary-cap space, if they rescind a couple of trade exceptions, to sign a maximum-salary player. They have a strong core of younger players returning, and they have one of the more dynamic young coaches in the game in Brad Stevens.
Moments after Sunday’s loss, Celtics co-owner Robert Epstein pulled Stevens aside and assured him that he will be the primary reason Boston will be able to attract free agents. Stevens made a positive impression nationally during this series, with observers lauding the Celtics’ passion and persistence.
But it will require much more than playing hard and having a loyal fan base to become a power again. The Celtics aren’t as close to becoming a factor as people may believe, but they aren’t far, either. Perhaps the most glaring need is a rebounding, rim-protecting big man.
Tyler Zeller was the team’s most surprising player this season, but he collected two offensive rebounds in nearly 90 minutes of playing time in the series and attempted five free throws. Swingman Evan Turner led the Celtics in rebounding in the series.
And while Isaiah Thomas proved he can score in bunches, he also proved he can be limited by swarming defenses. He was 6 for 26 shooting and 1 for 10 from the 3-point line in the final two games of the series. He needs help.
“Looking back at it, I know that everybody is like, ‘Man, we definitely had a chance,’ but all you can do is take from this experience, learning how to value every single possession,” guard Avery Bradley said. “That’s one thing that Brad is getting better at, we have a lot of young guys that are learning that in the playoffs you don’t really have room for any mistakes and we improved every single game, but we continued to make little mistakes and that’s really the reason why we lost.”
The Celtics are going to have to improve to make the playoffs next season because it’s highly unlikely the Eastern Conference will be this historically putrid again. The 76ers are finally going to try to win. The Pacers will have a healthy Paul George. The Hornets can’t possibly be this disappointing again. The Heat will be healthy and motivated after missing the playoffs, and the Pistons should be better.
Ascension should not be assumed. Ainge will have to make some astute moves to acquire enough talent to continue this momentum. The Celtics are a flawed team but they were competitive. Yet, they still got swept and you got the feeling the Cavaliers flipped on cruise control in certain stretches of all four games.
Stevens has instilled a winning and positive culture and has accentuated the strengths of his players, who all have limits. But players such as Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart will become part of the team’s nucleus.
But what Stevens learned is that without a dominant inside player, pinpoint perimeter shooting is required, and the trio of Thomas, Smart, and Bradley combined to go 11 for 50 from the 3-point line in the series. Time to acquire an above-average long-range shooter.
As much as this series provided hope and optimism, it also exposed the Celtics’ many weaknesses. Playing hard will win you regular-season games but not many playoff games.
“I think we learned a lot,” Turner said. “We need more experience. I think had we had this team the whole year, we’d be battling for a second or third [seed] in the [Eastern Conference]. I think that we’ll keep building our reputation. I think we’ve set the standard for toughness, but I also think we need more time together. When we walk in the gym I think that’s the biggest thing, to get the respect from most of the teams in the league.”
That respect will be gained with star power. This team, filled with inexperienced players and castoffs, made a spirited run to the playoffs. It was fun to watch. The experience should be invaluable. But Ainge has reiterated many times that it’s a league of stars, and very few teams are made up of equal talent.
The blueprint is now to use this season’s accomplishments, the lure of playing for Stevens, and a little (or a lot) of cash to bring that next superstar to Boston. It is an arduous task, but one that is essential if the Celtics plan to start winning these playoff games.