About 10 minutes after his team’s season ended, Celtics coach Brad Stevens walked down a hall in the bowels of TD Garden, toward a news conference room that had been constructed for this playoff series against the Hawks.
When Stevens arrived, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer was still at the podium, so Stevens quietly stood behind a black curtain and waited. He scanned a stat sheet from Boston’s 104-92 Game 6 loss Thursday night as the noise of construction vehicles taking apart the other makeshift rooms beeped in the background.
When Budenholzer finished his news conference, he came out and saw Stevens standing there. He walked over and shook his hand, patted him twice on the shoulder, and shared some brief, friendly words. It was not the way Stevens wanted this series, or this season, to end. Not here, not yet.
“It’s tough right now, because of the emotions of the moment and losing the series, and the way that we lost in the last two games,” Stevens said. “But I think that from a big-picture perspective, I feel good about our progress.”
Back in the Celtics’ locker room, the mood was dour. Players signed some jerseys and said some goodbyes to staff members and dressed quickly. But point guard Isaiah Thomas sat at his locker, still in his uniform, with a towel draped over his head as he sniffed back tears.
Evan Turner was leaving the room as he patted Thomas on the shoulder in a good-game, good-season kind of way. Then he noticed that Thomas was crying, so he walked back and crouched next to him and offered some encouragement. Thomas nodded.
This was a breakout season for the 5-foot-9-inch point guard. He was an All-Star. He led his team to 48 wins. Like Stevens, this was not how he envisioned it ending.
“I gave it my all, so that’s why it hurts that much more,” Thomas said. “I wish I could’ve done more, but it just happened to be like that. So it is tough for me.”
In Games 3 and 4, Thomas was a dynamic force as he helped Boston claw back to tie this series. But over the last two games, the Hawks’ defense of him became perhaps the defining story.
They trapped Thomas and sent players at him and put hands in his face at every turn. And ultimately, the Celtics just did not have enough support. So they packed their belongings.
“It’s like, tomorrow, what do I do?” forward Jared Sullinger said. “Normally I’d wake up to go to practice or we’d be getting on a flight to go to Game 7.”
The Celtics finished this season with 48 wins, eight more than a year ago. They won two playoff games after getting swept by the Cavaliers last season. This series showed that there is plenty of room for growth, but it also showed progress.
“Last year we were just excited to make the playoffs,” Sullinger said. “This year we wanted to make a run. We wanted to make some noise. Unfortunately, our noise got cut short.”
After the Celtics impressively took Games 3 and 4 at TD Garden, there was a sense of hope as they returned home for Game 6, trailing, 3-2. But from the start on Thursday, there was a different energy.
The Hawks led, 34-21, early in the second quarter before taking a 41-33 advantage to the break. Perhaps the Celtics were encouraged to be so close despite shooting just 27.7 percent from the field and making 3 of 18 3-pointers. But the Hawks struck quickly to start the third quarter, as Kyle Korver drilled a 3-pointer that ignited a 10-0 run, giving Atlanta a 55-36 lead.
In Game 4, Boston began its charge back from a 16-point deficit at this point. But in this game, its defense was simply not the same.
The Celtics had a glimmer of hope when Terry Rozier hit a three and Marcus Smart converted a 3-point play in just 37 seconds, pulling Boston within 73-59. But the Hawks silenced the run by scoring 7 points in a row over the final 52.5 seconds of the quarter. Atlanta torched Boston for 39 points in the third quarter.
The Hawks stretched their lead to 89-61 on a layup by Dennis Schroder with 9:51 left in the game. But this Celtics team had crafted so many daring comebacks this season that it had room to at least flirt with one more.
With the Hawks leading, 94-71, Boston put together a 12-1 burst that was capped by a circus shot by Thomas. With 1:48 left, Thomas drove down the lane for a layup to improbably pull Boston within 96-86. But this time, the hole was just too deep. As the final seconds ticked away, the fans sent the team off with a chant of “Let’s go, Celtics.” And then the buzzer sounded, and an important offseason began earlier than anyone on this team wanted.
The Celtics understand it will be a busy summer, but late Thursday night they were more focused on what just ended, not what lies ahead.
“I think what everybody’s going to remember,” Smart said, “is our fight.”