Finality can arrive suddenly in the NBA playoffs. In the last minute of the Celtics’ game against the Cavaliers on Sunday, the fans at TD Garden were standing and roaring, and there was a belief that Boston still had a chance, still had hope.
Then, about 20 minutes later, the home locker room was quiet. Players loaded their belongings into large black garbage bags and wished teammates well as they headed into an important and uncertain offseason.
Forward Gerald Wallace asked a team equipment manager if the lockers would be cleaned out in their entirety, and the manager looked up at Wallace and nodded his head.
This was, in fact, the end.
The Celtics were not supposed to be in the postseason, not yet. But they surged through the second half of the year as coach Brad Stevens polished an ever-changing roster, and suddenly, here they were, up against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. They were reminded, if only fleetingly, what it is like to roam with the NBA’s upper class.
But Sunday’s game cemented the reality that the gap between these teams remains sizable. Despite the Celtics’ runs, despite the charge provided by the sellout crowd, despite the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Boston could grab a win and send this series back to Cleveland, the Cavaliers confidently walked off the court with a 101-93 win. The Cavaliers completed the four-game sweep. They moved on.
“The best thing I take from this year is that there’s growth, there’s building, and there’s progress,” Stevens said. “Now, we have to build on it. That’s the challenge, right?”
With Sunday’s loss still raw, the Celtics’ hope for the future was tempered by hard truths about the present.
“We had a chance to make something amazing happen,” guard Avery Bradley said.
Game 4 was tough and physical, at times uncomfortably so. Cavaliers forward Kevin Love dislocated his shoulder when he tangled with Kelly Olynyk. Celtics forward Jae Crowder was shoved to the ground by the Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins, and Crowder later sprained his knee when he fell backward after being hit by J.R. Smith.
“You want to be physical,” James said, “but you never want the game to get out of hand.”
With 5:22 remaining in the opening quarter, Olynyk appeared to clamp down on Love’s left arm as they chased a rebound. Love immediately ran to the locker room. His arm was in a sling after the game, and his status for the conference semifinals was unclear.
“I thought it was a bush-league play,” Love said. “I mean, I was out there and Olynyk was in a compromised position and had no chance to get the ball. It’s just too bad he would go to those lengths to take somebody out of the game.”
That play set the tone for another physical afternoon. With 1:44 left in the second quarter, Perkins went to screen Crowder, and instead shoved him to the floor. Crowder leaped to his feet, and, as the two were being separated, Perkins swiped at Crowder.
Perkins received a Flagrant-1 foul and both players received technical fouls. Perkins is known as an enforcer and had played just two minutes during the series before Sunday, so there will be questions about whether he was brought in to retaliate.
“I hope that wasn’t the case,” Stevens said. “I didn’t think there was a response. I didn’t think that was part of the response, personally.”
With 10:24 left in the third quarter and the Cavaliers leading, 57-36, Smith and Crowder were tussling in the post when Smith swung his arm and hit Crowder in the head. Crowder fell backward and injured his knee. Smith received a Flagrant-2 foul and was ejected.
“There was nothing malicious about it,” Smith said. “I didn’t do anything to try to hurt him.”
That play seemed to both anger and energize the Celtics and the crowd. Boston closed the third quarter with a 25-13 run, as a Jared Sullinger tip-in at the buzzer pulled them within 70-61.
A Sullinger 3-pointer with 10:14 left made it 72-64, before a 3-pointer by Kyrie Irving and a jumper by James stretched the lead back to 13 points. The Celtics trailed, 91-75, with 3:14 left, and it looked like the end was near. But this resilient team, fittingly, closed with one final surge, scoring 18 points over the final 2:47.
With the Cavaliers’ lead down to 99-93 with 36.1 seconds left, an inbounds pass caromed off of Irving and out of bounds. Boston’s Gigi Datome had an open 3-pointer that could have pulled the Celtics within one possession, but the ball caromed off the rim, and the comeback stalled.
With the outcome decided in the final seconds, the fans at TD Garden stood and chanted, “Let’s go, Celtics!” And the chants continued well after the final buzzer.
“We played hard, we played tough, and we earned our way into the playoffs,” Celtics guard Evan Turner said. “We played a contender to the brink each game.”
The Celtics successfully stopped James and Irving from dominating, as the two combined to make 18 of 43 field goal attempts. But Boston’s shortfalls elsewhere were too much to overcome. The Celtics missed 13 free throws, went 3 of 23 from the 3-point line, and shot 38.8 percent overall.
Now the Celtics will turn their focus toward the summer, toward free agency and the draft. But they also will dissect what it takes to get back here, and to become more of a factor when they return.