It’s not an everyday topic of conversation, but there are times when some of the Boston Celtics players from last season think about the quick, four-game exit they had out of the playoffs.
“We were just happy to be there,” Jae Crowder told CSN’s Abby Chin.
It wasn’t until they were on the brink of elimination against Cleveland did the Celtics start to show the kind of fight, the kind of grit needed to compete against the better teams in the East.
To go through something like that -- as painful as it was at the time -- may turn out to be the best thing for the Celtics in the long run. They are a young, up-and-coming team that gained the kind of experience last season that no amount of regular-season games or practices can simulate.
And we’ll find out in the coming days if that experience will, in fact, pay off now as their first-round playoff series against the Hawks kicks off tonight at Atlanta’s Philips Arena.
Although Amir Johnson wasn’t with the Celtics last season, he understands the value and growth that comes about from making multiple trips into the postseason.
“You just get a better idea of what to expect, and how playoff basketball really is different than regular-season basketball,” he told CSNNE.com. “It’s more physical, more intense. Every play matters; it could be the one that gets you that win.”
Players aren’t the only ones who benefit from being in the postseason.
Brad Stevens is atypical in comparison to most NBA coaches. He had never been a player or an assistant in the NBA prior to being hired in 2013 after six stellar seasons at Butler University, which he led to a pair of national runner-up finishes.
Whenever coaches from the college ranks make the leap to the pros, there are lots of questions and concerns as to whether they can replicate the success at the pro level. In some instances they’re coaching players older than they are, which is a sharp contrast from the pimple-faced teens they were used to.
But Stevens has quickly earned the respect of his players, young and old.
“He draws up great plays. That helps,” quipped Evan Turner. “Brad’s a good coach. He knows what he’s doing out there. We believe in him.”
And while Stevens showed tremendous growth as a tactician this season, it remains to be seen if those same traits carry over to a best-of-seven series.
If there’s a blueprint for the Celtics to follow in their growth curve, it would be that of the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks' Mike Budenholzer came into the league as a head coach the same year as Stevens, although the team he inherited had a playoff-caliber roster while the Celtics were at the ground level of the franchise’s rebuilding process. In his first season, Budenholzer got the Hawks into the playoffs as an eighth seed. In the first round, they were eliminated in six games by top-seeded Indiana.
The following year they were back in the playoffs with the best record in the East and advanced to the conference finals.
A slow start, injuries and adjusting to life without DeMarre Carroll (he signed with Toronto in the offseason) all factored heavily into them coming into the playoffs as a fourth-seed this season. They struggled to the point where there was serious talk about breaking up their core group, which includes Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Al Horford (who will be a free agent this summer).
But Budenholzer, who doubles as the team’s president of basketball operations and is a disciple of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, decided to keep the band together.
It was a good call on his part as the Hawks began playing better (they had the seventh-best winning percentage after the All-Star break) and have shown the ability to play well at both ends of the floor at an elite level.
Atlanta’s Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) of .516 was the sixth-best in the NBA. And defensively, the Hawks held opponents to a league-low 43.2 percent shooting.
And then there’s the experience factor, which certainly favors them over Boston.
“I think we’re in a good place,” Budenholzer told reporters. “My gut says we’re a good team. We have a core group of players, whether you combine the last two years or just look at this year, that has shown themselves to be very competitive."