Did Celtics really make progress this season?
In the end, the Celtics became a one-man team, relying too heavily on Isaiah Thomas to score, create for his teammates, and even become their enforcer.
The burden was too much. The Celtics prided themselves this season on their depth and balance, but they were anything but deep and consistent as the season ended. They were thumped, 104-92, on Thursday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference first round by the Atlanta Hawks, who as usual did Celtic things better than the Celtics.
The expectation as the season progressed was that Boston would claim the third seed and be favored to win a playoff round. That didn’t happen. Because they didn’t show up in a late-season game against the Hornets, the Celtics finished in a four-way tie for third and ended up with the fifth seed and a first-round matchup with Atlanta.
That’s when expectations changed. Winning this series was a difficult task and the Celtics lamented a couple of those late-season losses for forcing that four-way tie.
Despite winning two games in the series, this season ended in a slightly disappointing fashion. After being swept in the first round by the Cavaliers last spring, the Celtics wanted to take a major step forward as an organization, feeling as if they had solidified their roster by signing Amir Johnson and bringing back core contributors.
But in the end, without Avery Bradley, whose injury in Game 1 essentially throttled the offense for the rest of the series, the Celtics were a limited bunch that had trouble scoring consistently. They became a team not quite ready for prime time and flawed against the league’s elite.
“Last year we were just excited to make the playoffs,” forward Jared Sullinger said. “This year we wanted to make a run. We wanted to make some noise. Unfortunately, our noise got cut short.”
The Celtics didn’t expect their season to end this early. They truly felt, when playing well, they were the third-best team in the East. But they were an average team in the final month of the regular season, and then injuries took a toll with Jae Crowder being limited by a high right ankle sprain.
Crowder shot 27.8 percent in the series and may not be prepared to assume the No. 2 scoring role. The Celtics depended on Crowder to become an offensive factor, and whether it was the ankle or perhaps Atlanta’s strong defense, he wasn’t capable.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens also took his lumps in this series, never able to get Thomas consistent open looks and realizing that there was little he could do with his team’s offensive limitations. Most of the 16 teams that reach the postseason are strong defensively, so scoring becomes even more important.
Boston’s defense began slipping in the final weeks of the season and then collapsed in stretches during the final week of the regular season. They yielded a 31-3 run on April 11 against the Hornets, and then fell behind by 26 to the Heat in the season finale before a furious rally.
The Celtics brought that same lackadaisical play into the postseason by falling behind by 12 points after the first quarter of Game 1, and then scoring a ghastly 7 points in the opening quarter of Game 2. This team was never quite right after that April 1 victory over the Warriors.
“I think judging by the whole season, yes, I think that’s obvious, right?” Stevens said when asked if the Celtics made progress from the previous year. “You go from under .500 [40-42] and barely making the playoffs and kind of eking in at the end to being in the mix for being a top-four seed in the East. So, yeah, there’s progress.
“But you know, people have told me all along there’s two really tough tasks. One is getting to be a very good, competitive team at the 10-15 level on offense and defense and give your chance to be in the discussion we’re in now.”
It has to be disappointing that the Celtics weren’t at their best when it counted most. Their numerous flaws were exposed. Thomas recorded 10 assists in Game 6 and his teammates recorded just six. The Celtics have seven first-round picks from their previous four drafts on the roster but just one — Marcus Smart — contributed positively in this series.
In the end, the Celtics weren’t all that deep. They appeared to be a tired bunch, depending too heavily on Thomas’s heroics. They learned a valuable lesson from this experience and no one on that roster should come away with completely positive feelings about this season.
The Celtics blew an opportunity to take that major step forward that their faithful have been waiting for since Stevens took the job. The Bradley injury was crippling, and so were the disappearance of Kelly Olynyk and the ineffectiveness of Sullinger.
Boston is headed toward consistent success, but this season has to be viewed as being progress with an asterisk.
“I think we should give the Hawks credit. I mean, they’re better right now,” Stevens said. “And it pains me to say that, and it’s a sour ending, but they just proved it over six games.”