The Boston Celtics are back in the NBA playoffs.
And yes, you read that correctly.
A few months ago, this all would’ve seemed about as likely as a Clinton/Heinsohn presidential ticket, but it became very real on Monday night, when the Bulls routed the Nets and indirectly punched the Celtics’ dance card. At this moment, we still don’t know if Boston will land the seventh seed or the eighth seed. We don’t know if they’ll play Cleveland or Atlanta. We don’t know if this will be a good thing or a bad thing in the long run — but believe it or not, it’s officially a ‘thing’.
The Celtics are back in the playoffs.
I keep typing that sentence, and re-reading that sentence, and the novelty is still going strong.
The Celtics are back in the playoffs.
The Celtics are back in the playoffs
But seriously, how the hell did this happen?
Danny Ainge might be asking himself that question today, because this wasn’t part of his plan. A few other teams might be asking that question, too. After all, the Timberwolves have been trying to build a playoff team for more than a decade now; the Kings are on a nine-year drought; the Pistons have gone six years; New Orleans is one loss away from joining Phoenix in the five-year-club. Meanwhile, Danny Ainge isn’t even trying to make the playoffs, and he just made the playoffs. That’s not supposed to happen.
So, I’ll ask one more time: How the hell did this happen?
Here are 25 key chronological steps:
September 7, 1630: A group of prominent Puritan settlers change the name of the region previously known as “Trimountaine” to “Boston” after the small town in England where many are originally from.
June 6, 1946: The Basketball Association of America (BAA) is formed at a meeting of extremely rich dudes in New York City, and Boston is awarded one of the league’s original 13 franchises.
May 11, 1970: The NBA (which absorbed the BAA in 1949) holds an expansion draft for the newly added Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers franchises. This brings the total number of NBA teams to 17, and the league makes the transition from two divisions, to two conferences, with multiple divisions in each conference.
On account of their east coast locale, the Celtics are thankfully placed in the Eastern Conference.
May 9, 2003: The Celtics hire Danny Ainge. Five years later, the Celtics win an NBA title. For the five years after that, the Celtics contend for another title, but never quite get over the hump.
June 24, 2013: The Celtics agree in principle to trade Doc Rivers to the Clippers.
June 27, 2013: Ainge finally determines that this latest edition of the Celtics will never ever get over the hump, and sends Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for a boat load of future draft picks. Just like that, the Celtics are in rebuilding mode. And this isn’t a half measure rebuild, either. This is Jesse Pinkman blasting Gale Boetticher. This is total devastation. Almost immediately, Celtics fans buckle up for a very unpleasant ride, with the expectation that Boston will now feed on the bottom until they’re ready to hold their own on the top.
The one thing that no one imagines they’ll do is stay in the middle. You know, put themselves in a position to eek into the postseason without any realistic shot at a championship; to sacrifice long term potential for real time satisfaction. After all, that’s not how you build a winner in the NBA. That’s not Danny Ainge. That’s not full measure.
July 3, 2013: The Celtics hire Brad Stevens.
Wrong move, Danny. If you really wanted to miss the playoffs for an extended period of time, you should have taken a page from ML Carr, thrown on a helmet and driven the big green tank straight into the ground yourself. Or even worse, you could’ve made Doc stay. He would’ve been miserable these last two years and the team would’ve been worse. But no, you had a go and steal Brad Stevens from Butler, and now look where you are?
March 17, 2014: The Knicks hire Phil Jackson Knicks
The Celtics might be in the playoffs but they also have a losing record, which is to say that they didn’t make the playoffs because they’re so much better than we thought they’d be, but because so many other teams are so much worse. For instance, the Knicks. It’s easy to forget now, but when Ainge pushed the reset button, the Knicks were coming off a 54-win season. They had a superstar in his prime and a decent enough cast to be competitive for at least a few more years. Then Phil Jackson came in with the brains and authority to do what needed to be done, and he’s methodically turned the Knicks into Zen Master-brand, hemp-infused dog food.
June 26, 2014: Celtics draft Marcus Smart.
Note to NBA GMs: If you’re in the market for a team that’s more apt to fall short of expectations than maximize potential, do NOT employ the services Marcus Osmond Smart.
July 10, 2014: Celtics acquire Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton and a first round pick in exchange for a second round pick.
Ainge made this trade with the $10M exception acquired in the Pierce/KG deal, and at the time, it was more about the draft pick than either of the two players. But Zeller transformed into a steady and reliable presence in the middle. He’s not the world’s best rim protector, but he’s far better than any current alternative. So far on the season, he’s one of three Celtics to appear in every game and leads the team in blocks and total rebounds. He’s also second in free throw attempts, shoots them at an 82 percent clip and is averaging a career high 10.2 points a night. In retrospect, a second rounder for just Zeller would have been a steal.
July 12, 2014: The Phoenix Suns acquire Isaiah Thomas in a sign-and-trade with the Sacramento Kings.
The deal is for four years/$28M, and it’s such a bargain that the Suns pull the trigger without truly processing the ramifications of adding a fiery, ball dominant point guard to a backcourt that already features two fiery ball dominant point guards.
July 16, 2014: The Charlotte Hornets sign Lance Stephenson.
Remember when all the basketball truthers eviscerated Danny Ainge for giving Avery Bradley a four-year/$32M deal instead of signing Stephenson for three years and $27M?
Anyway, Stephenson destroyed the Hornets’ season. They were trying to trade him five minutes after he showed up. Thanks to Stephenson’s struggles, Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker were forced to carry the load, but neither was consistently healthy enough to do so — and that’s probably because they were being asked to carry too much of the load.
August 1, 2014: Paul George breaks his leg.
And the Pacers’ hearts.
And your coffee table after you watched the replay, vomited on the floor, slipped while running for a mop and fell straight through the glass.
The Pacers might still end up in the playoffs but if George doesn’t get hurt, there’s no “if”, and there’s no way that Boston takes three of four games in the season series.
September 29, 2014: Celtics sign Evan Turner.
The deal was rumored for months, but wasn’t finalized until just before Training Camp. It was a two year contract worth about $3.5M a season, and the Celtics knew they were getting a talented player, but couldn’t have known they were getting this.
Before I go on, let me say that there’s no question that Turner is a flawed player, and that he can be a frustrating player, and that no one will be surprised if something happens in the playoffs that leaves the organization and the fan base enraged. That said, Turner’s been a very valuable piece of the playoff puzzle. Ainge could have never imagined the steadiness (yes, steadiness) and productivity that ET has delivered. For all the negatives you might want to throw his way, Turner is one of only three Celtics to appear in every game this season. He’s the team leader in assists and defensive rebounds; he’s second in minutes played (behind Avery Bradley); he’s third in steals and fourth in points scored.
Here’s the best and maybe worst thing you can say about Evan Turner: Without him, Boston would be in the lottery.
December 18, 2014: The Celtics trade Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell to Dallas for Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, a 2015 1st round draft pick and a 2016 2nd round draft pick.
Trading your best player isn’t supposed to improve the team, but in Rondo’s case, the team couldn’t have gotten much worse. There are few different variables within this statistic, but still: Over his last three seasons in Boston, Rondo started 90 games, and the Celtics only won 33 of them. That’s a .367 winning percentage.
In return for their captain, the Celtics received Jae Crowder who — like Marcus Smart — is just about the last guy you want onboard if you’re halfway hoping the ship will sink.
December 22, 2014: The Pistons release Josh Smith.
This isn’t so much about Stan Van Gundy releasing Smith on December 22 as much as it is about him NOT releasing Josh Smith BEFORE December 22, not to mention turning down trade offers for Smith that previous summer. By the time SVG pulled the trigger, the Pistons, who were another team that looked ready to make the postseason leap, were 5-23 and needed a perfect storm to salvage a playoff berth. But between injuries to Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe, and Reggie Jackson’s slow transition, that early deficit was too much to overcome.
January 12, 2015: The Celtics trade Jeff Green to the Grizzlies for Tayshaun Prince and a future 1st round pick.
Trading your best player isn’t supposed to improve the team, but in Green’s case, it didn’t come as a surprise.
January 22, 2015: ET from the baseline.
Seeing how the Celtics didn’t clinch until Game 80, every win made a difference — especially those that were stolen from the jaws of defeat.
On January 22 in Portland, with seven seconds left and the Celtics down by two, Jared Sullinger drove to hoop, lost the ball, dove after it in the paint, regained control, pivoted on his trademark rump and found a wide open Evan Turner in the corner.
Turner drained a three with one second left and the Celtics escaped Portland with a one-point win.
February 19, 2015: As part of a three-team trade, the Celtics send Tayshaun Prince to the Pistons, and Marcus Thornton and a 2016 1st round pick to the Suns. In return, they get Isaiah Thomas, Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome.
And this was the turning point for Boston. This is where, out of the thin air, they found their offensive leader, their go-to-guy, and as far as I’m concerned, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
And even if you take Luigi Datome out of the equation, Thomas and Jerebko have been pretty good, too. In Isaiah’s case, Ainge knew that this was a move that might push Boston into playoff contention, but as we saw with the Suns last summer, Isaiah’s talent at Isaiah’s price is almost impossible to resist.
February 21, 2015: Chris Bosh is ruled out for the season with a blood clot in his lung.
The day before, the Heat acquired Goran Dragic (and for the record, Zoran Dragic), and suddenly became a very sexy pick to make noise in the East. The next day, the news came in on Bosh, and while everyone was thankful that the clot was found when it was, the timing just about destroyed Miami’s playoff aspirations and opened the door a little wider for Boston.
March 4, 2015: Tyler Zeller beats the Jazz on a pump fake and last second lay in.
March 5, 2015: The Celtics sign JaVale McGee.
And nothing was ever the same.
April 4, 2015: Marcus Smart saves the day in Toronto.
Remember when Smart was suspended for a game last month for unleashing an upper cut into Matt Bonner’s groin? Of course you do. Especially you, Matt. Well, the game that Smart missed will go down as one of the worst losses of the Celtics season — an overtime defeat, at home, against the struggling Pistons. After the game, Smart’s teammates were clearly disappointed. Evan Turner bluntly told reporters that “(Marcus) owes us one.”
Less than two weeks later, Smart responded with his dramatic overtime buzzer beater in Toronto. And don’t forget that he also hit a huge baseline three with 33 seconds left and Boston down two.
April 10-12, 2015: The Cavs bench their starters for the fourth quarter of a Friday night game in Cleveland, and the entire following Sunday in Boston.
Who knows what would have happened in the second game, but the Cavs were poised to run away with that Friday night contest before David Blatt turned the keys over to Kendrick Perkins.
April 13, 2015: The Bulls beat the Nets, and — BOOM — the Celtics are back in the playoffs.
At this point, it looks like they’ll probably play the Cavs, but who knows? We’ll have plenty of time to get lost in the eventual match-up. We’ll have plenty of time to argue about the long term implications of skipping the lottery in the name of a potential four-game sweep. We’ll have plenty time for all that stuff but for now, just for fun, say it with me one more time:
THE CELTICS ARE BACK IN THE PLAYOFFS.
Follow me on Twitter @rich_levine