Celtics

Reveling in the surprise party

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Reveling in the surprise party

After six months spent watching the Celtics overcome every obstacle and bounce back from the dead more times than Kenny McCormick, its hard to believe that Saturday really marked the end of their season.

In fact, Im still not convinced that theyre done. After all, if any team can lose Game 7 of the Conference Finals and somehow live to see another day, it would be these Celtics, right? Right?!

I guess, but delusions aside, we all know the truth. It came down hard on Saturday night, as the Cs ran out of gas, LeBron casually drained a half court jumper and a fan base that barely deserves a team celebrated its second straight trip to the NBA Finals. Yeah, maybe the pains started to evaporate, but the bitterness still exists, and it will remain until the Thunder take care of business, or . . . I dont know, until forever? Then again, its hard to get bitter about anything after the month-long surprise party the Celtics threw this city.

They took us places that weve been before, but were sure wed never see again or not for a while, not with this group. They taught us important lessons about the power of team, heart, faith and resilience. Lessons that we learned in 2010, but conveniently forgot. Lessons that Im sure well eventually forget again. But for now, theyre fresh, and what this team just accomplished not only inspires us as fans, but as human beings: Screw the haters. Just work hard. Stay focused. Be you. (Also, it helps if youre a seven-footer with a deadly jumper, or 6-foot-1 with blinding speed, a beautiful mind, freakish wingspan and hands the size of frying pans.)

Man, it was an amazing run. Unfortunately, one that will be quickly overshadowed by the star-studded NBA Finals and the Celtics state of uncertainty by the draft, free agency and retirement rumors. But before we get there, before the greatness of the Celtics improbable charge to within one win of the Finals starts to fade like a photo of the McFlys, lets take one more second to breathe it all in. To go back to the moment before Game 6, before Game 7, when everything was so real, when you firmly believed in the impossible, when the Celtics were on top of the world and on the verge conquering it. Do it now, before the feelings gone forever . . .

Ahhhhhhh, thats good Celtics.

What a run.

What a team.

Now, lets turn the page.

In the coming days, weeks and months, things will get crazy around here. Have we just witnessed the end of an era? Is Ray gone? Is KG retiring? If so, does Danny step up and trade Pierce? Who knows? All I can tell you is that Im holding off on the obituaries. Ive wasted far too many words and hours eulogizing this team over the last three years. Im done with the speculation. Im done with preemptive goodbyes; with assuming we know what these guys will do next.

When Rays at the podium in New York, Miami or Chicago, Ill say goodbye. When the Celtics announce that theyve received a hand-written note from KG saying: Its been real. See you never. Ill say goodbye. When Pauls sitting between Danny and Doc on stage in Waltham, with tears in his eyes, saying thank you for everything that Bostons meant to him over the last 14 years . . . Ill say goodbye. Until then, what else can we do but sit back and see what happens. And you know what? Im actually excited to see what happens.

That alone feels like a victory.

Weve spent the last five seasons training ourselves to fear the end of the Big Three Era. As if once one, two or all three of these guys walk away, well realize that the last five years were nothing but a dream, and wake up in the same awful place that we were before they got here. With Rondo in Pierces role as tumultuous leader, surrounded by a slew of interchangeable, irrelevant parts, and Doc flailing at ways to keep it all together. The Big Three Era is what saved this team, so we just figured that the end would doom them once again. It was a natural fear. An honest fear. But personally, its one thats faded significantly.

Part of that has to do with the changing face of Boston sports in general, because lets be honest: Were all living though a major transition.

Once Kevin Faulk retires, Tom Brady will be the only one left from that first Super Bowl. David Ortiz is already the only one left from that first World Series (I know Youk was on the roster, but he was the 40th man). In the time since Vinatieris kick in New Orleans which started this run of unprecedented greatness weve said goodbye to nearly every athlete we ever loved. We watched a dynasty disappear, we watched the Idiots go their separate ways. In the process, weve learned that life goes on. That change doesnt always breed disaster. That while those may have been the good old days, that doesnt mean that all the other days have to be a nightmare. That if you truly love a team, you'll find reasons to love them. Or more, those reasons will find you.

Hell, Rob Gronkowski was 12 when the Patriots won that first Super Bowl. Avery Bradley was 11. Tyler Seguin had just turned 10. Some of our favorite athletes in this city were basically babies when this whole thing started. Do you think they know anything about Boston's decade of dominance? Or more, what it was like before that?

Times are changing. Times have already changed. Whether its in two days or two years, time is coming for the Big Three. And while thats terrifying on the surface, time has taught us that theres also reason to be optimistic.

Time has showed us that Rondo is ready to run with the torch. That Avery Bradley is more than ready to run with him. Throw in Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Chris Wilcox, Greg Stiemsma, two first round picks from an especially deep draft, not to mention all the money the Celtics have available and . . . well, I'm already way ahead of myself. But the point is that while we've spent the last six months fearing that the end of this season was going to trigger a return to the Dark Ages, in reality, even the worst case scenario doesn't look so bad. We can see the future. The foundation is in place. It's starting to make sense.

But we'll deal with that when we get there.

For now, all we can do is take another second and appreciate a great run from a great team. And know that if Saturday night truly marked the end of not only the Celtics season, but this latest era of Celtics basketball, that we were all lucky to have seen it, to be a part of it, and to have lived and died with them from the beginning to the end.

And that while no one knows what the future holds, we can all agree on one thing:

Let's go, Thunder.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Celtics-Heat preview: Will Celts be drained by emotional win in Dallas?

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Celtics-Heat preview: Will Celts be drained by emotional win in Dallas?

The Boston Celtics remain a team whose collective talents are far more valuable than their individual abilities.

But there are going to be nights when someone has to shoulder a larger burden of the team in order to win. More often than not, that “one” will likely be No. 11, Kyrie Irving. 

We saw in Dallas what can happen when Irving feels he has little choice but to put the team on his back and carry them to victory. 

The Celtics were desperate for a spark against the Mavericks and found it in Irving, who scored 47 points in leading the Celtics to a come-from-behind 110-102 overtime win. 

It remains to be seen if the Celtics will require a similar Herculean effort tonight when they take the Miami Heat with a chance to extend their winning streak to 17 straight. 

This team isn’t one to dwell on success in the past, even if the past was just 24 hours ago. But there’s no getting around how what happened on Monday night might impact what we see against the Heat. 

Boston expended a tremendous amount of energy in rallying from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter at Dallas, the kind of effort that may be difficult to replicate against a Miami team that you can count on to play hard from the opening tip to the final horn. 

Irving’s performance was one of the rare instances this season when Boston clearly could not have won without their top scorer having a big game. 

“When we needed it most, he made big shot after big shot,” said Al Horford. “He had such good rhythm, I was thinking, ‘just let him keep it going.’ He just kept being aggressive, taking really good shots. He recognized he needed to be extra aggressive, especially at the end and score the ball for us.”

Scoring could potentially be at a premium against Miami which allows 102.5 points per game which ranks ninth in the league in fewest points allowed. Also, the Heat will test Boston’s perimeter defenders. Miami comes into tonight’s game averaging 11.1 made 3-pointers per game which ranks ninth in the NBA. 

The Heat are led by Goran Dragic who is averaging team highs in scoring (18.3 points) and assists (4.7) this season. 

These two squared off earlier this season in Miami with the Celtics coming away with a 96-90 win as Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum led the way with 24 and 20 points, respectively. In that game, the Heat were without starting center Hassan Whiteside, who will be in the lineup tonight as the Heat try to bounce back after losing three of its last four games.

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Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

BOSTON – For most of this NBA season, the narrative surrounding the Celtics has centered around the maturity of their young players.

Well, there's a much bigger tale of growth on this team. But we're not talking about rookie Jayson Tatum or second-year wing Jaylen Brown.

We're talking about Kyrie Irving, whose desire for growth fueled his decision to want out of Cleveland this past offseason.

And that growth has in turn sparked the Celtics to what has been an unprecedented run of success.

"He's doing things that we never saw when he was in Cleveland," one league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. "He always had great talent, but could he lead a really good team? I think we got our answer now."

The Celtics (16-2) boast the best record in the NBA, which is amazing when you consider Gordon Hayward broke his ankle less than five minutes into the season opener. Not to mention they lost their first two games.

Literally all they've done since then is win.

Boston's 16 straight victories is an NBA record after losing the first two games of the season. The winning streak ranks as the fourth-longest in franchise history.

And while the pieces to Boston's success vary, the man whose growth has been at the epicenter of the Celtics' emergence as a title contender has been Irving.

You can count Mike Brown, Irving's former coach in Cleveland, among those impressed with the growth in Irving on all levels.

"To see Kyrie taking ownership of not only little things offensively, but even on the other end of the floor, leadership and all that other stuff ... I'm happy for him, I'm excited for him," Brown, now an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, told NBC Sports Boston. 

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While his numbers have taken a slight dip here in Boston, Irving seems to be better in tune with what he needs to do to positively impact the play of his teammates and the team as a whole.

In Boston's 110-102 overtime win at Dallas on Monday, Irving had 47 points, the most he's scored as a Celtic.

His scoring binge included 10 points in overtime. 

And when talking about his monster scoring night, Irving provides a clue as to how his approach to the game has changed over the years in terms of scoring.

Irving described his breakout scoring night as something that "was called upon," adding: "I don't think I needed to score over 20 or 25 in particular games. So I think if you would have asked me that question probably a few years ago, I would probably tell you that I would definitely be trying to get 40."

Earlier this season, Irving talked about developing some bad habits early in his career because his primary goal, like most high draft picks, was to get buckets. That frequently led to the ball sticking in his hands too long, or him having to force up shots and not getting his teammates involved as much as he should have.

While some chalked it up to him being a selfish player, Brown saw it differently.

"A lot of it was his youth, which is more than understandable," said Brown, who coached Irving in Cleveland during the 2013-14 season. "When he first came into the league, he had played 11 games in college. Before that with high school and AAU, for a guy that talented, it was pretty easy for him. He could go out and get 40 and win and not have to focus on anything else."

Brown recalls one of the early challenges with Irving was getting him to get his teammates involved more consistently.

"One of the things I used to always hit him with, he can score and finish in a crowd like no other, especially at his size," Brown recalled. "He draws a lot of attention. I always used to tell him, whether it's the strong-side or the weak-side, guys in the corners are wide open when you dribble-penetrate because you are such a dangerous finisher."

There would be film study to illustrate this point. It would show just how easily Irving would get to various spots on the floor by breaking his defender down or splitting an upcoming double team. But it would also show that when he made his moves in traffic, far too often his head would be down, which is why he wasn't finding teammates open.

Brown pointed this out as an area Irving needed to get better at if he were going to continue ascending up the point-guard stratosphere in the NBA.

"And you know, he got a little better at it," Brown said. 

Today?

"I tell you right now, he's a double-edged sword," Brown said. "Now, not only can he finish in traffic, now he's finding guys in the strong-corner. He's finding guys in the weak corner. And he's finding guys that are in the slots above the corner on the wing. To see him make that pass with such ease and precision right now, at least for me it's a joy. It's a joy for me because it's something I knew he could do. As a young man in high school and AAU, he's probably thinking, score, score, score. So that's not something he developed growing up, at least he didn't show to me. Now to see him do it, it's beautiful."

It certainly has been for the Celtics, who are off to their best start under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens. Stevens has found a way to blend his system, which is heavily predicated on ball movement offensively and the ability to switch frequently on defense, with Irving's immense individual talent. So far at least, has been a good fit for all involved.

"Kyrie is trying to do his role to the best of his ability," Stevens said. "Obviously, his role garners a lot of attention because he scores the ball and he has those moments where he mesmerizes everybody with his ability to score the ball and handle the ball and stuff. He's trying to do all the little things. It's a brand new system. There's going to continue to be an adjustment period for him. But he's done a good job."

Listening to Irving talk following the win over Dallas, it's clear there's a considerable amount of thought on his part given to how he'll attack defenses even though we're talking about split-second, on-the-fly decisions.

"It just happens," Irving said when asked about his best scoring night as a Celtic. "Just the flow of the game, understanding where spacing is, where the shot is going to come from, when it's time to put the foot on the gas pedal, being aggressive and take advantage of certain things I was seeing out there. But my teammates did a great job of continuing to pressure the basketball."

And he continues to provide both strong play and leadership, which have moved the needle closer to him achieving what he was seeking when he asked the Cavs to trade him during the offseason.

"This was literally a decision that I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward," he said earlier this season.

Watching him inside the Celtics locker room and on the floor, it's clear that he's having a good time out there.

And his career going forward? 

Irving's impact on winning has positioned him to where a strong case can be made for him being a top-5 league MVP candidate.

Following the Dallas win, Irving was serenaded by fans chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P'" which certainly brought a smile to his face and was somewhat unexpected considering Boston was on the road.

"It's pretty awesome," Irving said of the chants. "But we got a long way to go."

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