The aptly named poet John Greenleaf Whittier provided the perfect prose to assess the Celtics as they embark upon a playoff run that has taken on a different context — “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’ ’’
These shorthanded Celtics are playoff placeholders. They are a team caught between the championship-contending team they could have been with a healthy Kyrie Irving and the championship-caliber team they’re going to be next year when they get Irving and Gordon Hayward, who dislocated and broke his left ankle less than six minutes into the season, back. It’s impossible to assess the Celtics’ chances in the Eastern Conference as they start their best-of-seven, first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday at TD Garden without daydreaming about what they might have been this season with better luck or what they will be next season when they have their core intact.
In the meantime, we have to live in what human wrecking ball to Celtics history Rick Pitino calls the precious present. With Irving and Hayward hors de hoops and Marcus Smart expected to be unavailable until the latter stages of the Bucks series, progress for the second-seeded Celtics can’t be graded and evaluated on how many playoff rounds they win. Success will be defined by the advancement made on the parquet by integral and promising young pieces Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier, all of whom are going to be asked to hit fast-forward on their development.
This playoff run for the Green is about a growth spurt for Tatum, Brown, and Rozier. It’s an opportunity for them to expand their games and to expand the horizon for the Celtics next season when the team returns to full strength and is positioned to challenge for an NBA title. The faster the young players reach their potential this postseason the deeper the Celtics become next season and the faster we can start clearing space in the rafters for Banner 18.
If the Celtics lose to the Bucks in seven games with Tatum and Brown playing like All-Stars-in-the-making and Rozier rising to the occasion in place of Irving, that’s more meaningful than if Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and Greg Monroe carry them out of the first round. That’s why a first-round defeat at the hands of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the No. 7 seed Bucks can’t automatically be labeled as a failure for the progeny of the parquet.
That’s the 30,000-foot view of the Celtics. They find themselves in an usual position for a 55-win team in a wide-open Eastern Conference. There is no sin in losing in the first round if it comes with player progress.
That’s certainly not going to be the attitude of the defiant Celtics, who have embraced the no-respect trope. Nobody that makes the playoffs ever admits they have their eye on anything but winning, and no team coached by Brad Stevens is going to give in or give up, ever. That’s why Stevens is a lock to win NBA Coach of the Year one day.
The good news for the depleted Celtics is that they got about as propitious a playoff draw as possible. Despite the presence of the Greek Freak, Milwaukee is a manageable matchup for the Celtics.
The Green don’t have to worry about facing a Washington Wizards team that got its franchise point guard back from his knee issue and has it out for the Celtics in the first round. They don’t have to deal with a Miami Heat team that would have turned a first-round series into a meat-grinder affair and that boasts a coach that has a few Stevens-esque tricks up his sleeve in Erik Spoelstra.
If the Celtics can handle Milwaukee’s best and move on they don’t have to deal with the top-seeded Toronto Raptors or LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. Instead, they draw either the inexperienced Philadelphia 76ers or the superstar-free Heat. Meanwhile, the Raptors and the LeBrons might be staging the real Eastern Conference finals in the second round.
That’s getting a bit ahead ourselves. First up are the Bucks. Antetokounmpo, who averaged 33.5 points in four regular-season contests against the Celtics, is an incomparable talent. He is unquestionably the best player in the series, and the Bucks are on the opposite end of the injury spectrum. They have two-time ACL-tear survivor Jabari Parker; 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, who missed 30 games with a left quad injury; and Matthew Dellavedova, who sat out 29 games with a right ankle sprain, back to bolster their depth.
The teams split their four regular-season meetings, but it feels like the Bucks are built to play into the Celtics’ hands.
Milwaukee isn’t a good rebounding team. The Bucks ranked last in the NBA in rebounds per game at 39.8 and 29th of 30 teams in offensive rebounding (8.4 per game).
They don’t stretch the court with the 3-pointer to the degree that most teams do in today’s ready, aim, fire NBA, surprising with the presence of Khris Middleton. According to NBA advanced statistics, Milwaukee finished 28th in the NBA in percentage of points scored via 3-pointers at 24.7 percent. The Celtics were fourth with 33 percent of their points coming via the three.
The Celtics are the best half-court defensive team in the league. Boston finished first in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 101.5 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks like to generate turnovers and get athletic players such as Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe out in the open court. The Bucks were credited with 1,868 points in transition, third in the league, behind the Lakers and Warriors.
The onus is on Rozier, Tatum, and Brown not to turn the ball over.
With the beautiful basketball mind of Stevens probing Milwaukee, the Celtics shouldn’t have a problem containing the Bucks. Milwaukee was 6-18 this season when scoring fewer than 100 points.
The issue for the Celtics will be scoring enough points. No one is going to have to tell Morris to shoot. Horford was fantastic against Milwaukee this season, averaging 18.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 70.5 percent (not a typo). But the Celtics will need consistent offense from Tatum, Brown, and Rozier.
They have to raise their games to raise expectations for the Celtics this postseason and next season, while potentially raising their trade values as well.
It’s not about how far the Celtics go in these playoffs. It’s about how much further along they can get in the process of building their next Banner team.
Progress for the Celtics this postseason won’t be measured in playoff advancement, but in advancing the championship cause on Causeway Street.