Celtics turn themselves into a team to contend with
When Kyrie Irving’s trade request in Cleveland became public knowledge this summer, the Celtics did what just about every other team in the NBA did – they picked up the phone to see what the Cavs were looking for. Boston wasn't Cleveland’s first choice for a trade partner, which makes sense considering the two had just met in the Eastern Conference finals and teams typically look to ship players to franchises outside of their respective conference. But as the Cavs fielded one underwhelming offer after another, the Celtics remained an option. And eventually, the only option. It was a deal that sent shockwaves through the NBA landscape, immediately transforming the Celtics from being a good team with deep playoff potential, to one that could on paper compete for an NBA title sooner rather than later after having already landed Gordon Hayward via free agency just a couple months earlier, along with having signed Al Horford in the summer of 2016. Irving’s impact has indeed been immediate, with Boston boasting one of the best records in the league despite losing Hayward (ankle) for the season, while elevating his play to where the 25-year-old is a legit league MVP candidate for the first time in his career.
FEBRUARY 5: GOODBYE PARTY
With time winding down, Paul Pierce drained a 3-pointer that sent the TD Garden crowd into a frenzy.He was wearing a Los Angeles Clippers uniform at the time, but it didn’t matter. This was Pierce’s last game at the TD Garden, and he capped it off doing what he had done for 15 years as a member of the Celtics --leave ‘em wanting more. “I truly appreciate my time here,” said Pierce who was visibly moved to tears when they played a video tribute to him in the first quarter. “I truly appreciate tonight. Fans really showered me with a lot of love. It was just . . . you really don’t know what you, what you meant to a team while you’re playing, and you really don’t get a chance to really reflect on it while you’re playing. It hit me a lot tonight, but I’m sure it’s probably going to hit me a lot more when I’m done playing, but this is something I truly felt tonight. The appreciation of what I’ve been able to give this city and what they’ve been able to give me. Not only on the court, but off the court, too.”
APRIL 16: PLAYING THROUGH HEARTBREAK
There’s a heightened level of emotion when the playoffs roll around. But the start of the 2017 playoffs for Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics, was different. Thomas was on the TD Garden floor ready for Game 1 against Chicago, just 24 hours after his 22-year-old sister, Chyna Thomas, was killed in a one-car accident in the state of Washington. Before the game, the TD Garden had a moment of silence in honor of her, a gesture that brought many -- including Thomas -- to tears.
As painful as her untimely death was to Thomas, he responded with one of his best playoff performances ever, scoring 33 points on 10-for-18 shooting in Boston’s 106-102 loss to Chicago.
“This is a close-knit team,” coach Brad Stevens said at that time. “He’s a big part of it. Isaiah is a great teammate, Isaiah’s a great husband, a great father. He is a great guy, great son, brother. Ultimately, we tried to do our part and letting him know we were thinking about him. Anything we could do to help, we do. This particular situation with his family takes precedence over everything else going on. We’re here for him.”
MAY 3: 'EVERYTHING I DO IS FOR HER'
The emotional burden Isaiah Thomas carried into Boston’s Game 2 matchup against Washington was unlike anything he had experienced. Already grappling with the death of his younger sister Chyna Thomas on April 15, the Game 2 matchup was on what would have been her 23rd birthday. “The least I can do is go out there and play for her,” Thomas said following the game. Did. He. Ever. Thomas scored a career playoff-high 53 points in Boston’s 129-119 overtime win against the Wizards. Only one player in Celtics history (John Havlicek, 54 points against Atlanta on April 1, 1973) had ever scored more than the 5-foot-9 guard in a playoff game. “My family, my friends, they tell me to just keep going,” Thomas said in an emotional interview following the win, with TNT’s David Aldridge. “My sister wouldn’t want me to stop. They only thing about it is once I leave this gym, I hit reality and she’s not there. That’s the tough part. When I’m in this arena, I can lock in and I know everything I do is for her.”
MAY 16: HITTING THE LOTTERY
The Celtics were well positioned to another prospect near the top of the draft, courtesy of the 2013 trade with Brooklyn which sent Boston the Nets’ unprotected 2017 first round pick, which had the greatest odds of being the top overall pick due to the Nets (20-62) finishing with the league’s worst record. As the draft order unfolded, one team after another was called which was a good thing for the Celtics. And then there were three teams left -- the Los Angeles Lakers,Philadelphia and the Celtics. “The third pick in this year’s draft goes to . . . the Philadelphia 76ers,” said NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum. Moments later Tatum said, “the second pick will be made by . . . the Los Angeles Lakers.”
And with that news, the Celtics had landed the coveted top overall pick, adding to what had already been an incredible season for Boston which went into the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 53-29 record and were at that time in the Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland.
JUNE 19: TRADER DANNY STRIKES AGAIN
Celtics fans had been salivating for years about the prospect of landing the top overall pick in the NBA draft. And wouldn’t you know it? The year they finally land it, Danny Ainge does what Danny Ainge does a lot of – he made a trade.
He sent the pick to Philadelphia, in exchange for the Sixers’ first-round pick (No. 3 overall) in the draft as well as a conditional first-round pick via the Los Angeles Lakers. In doing so, Ainge was passing up the chance to draft Markelle Fultz from Washington, the consensus top prospect in the draft and instead decided to select Duke’s Jayson Tatum.
AUGUST 30: A STUNNER
Isaiah Thomas did some pretty amazing things during his two-plus seasons in Boston. Forget about the stats and games won and gutsy play. One of the most impressive things he did was win over not just Celtics Nation but pretty much every sports fan across the country, without winning a championship which he made no secret was what drove him as a player. And then . . . he was traded. Getting Kyrie Irving from Cleveland for Thomas along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and two draft picks, was a deal few would turn away. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier for fans and certainly wasn’t for Thomas who made no secret about being hurt by the trade. The right hip injury he suffered last season was a factor in the Celtics pulling the trigger on the deal, which is understandable. Thomas hasn’t played this season because of the injury, but is reportedly eyeing a January return (Cleveland plays Boston on Jan. 3). And while the first game back after such a long layoff might not be ideal for Thomas, would anyone be shocked if he plays well? Not Celtics fans who have seen the 5-foot-9 guard do some pretty amazing things.
OCTOBER 17: BROKEN HEARTS
For those of us who witnessed Gordon Hayward’s season-ending left ankle injury in real time, it was the sound - that hard-as-hell thud when he hit Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena ankle-first - that told you he would be out for a while.
The Celtics soon ruled him out for the rest of the season, a major blow to Boston’s plans which included the all-star forward having a prominent role in the team’s night-in, night-out game plan. Meanwhile, Hayward maintains the slimmest of hope that he can make a miraculous comeback and return this season.
“My mind is open to that,” Hayward said. “I’m trying to get back as fast as I can. It all depends on how I heal and taking it day by day, goal by goal. We will see what happens.” His agent, Mark Bartelstein, echoed similar sentiments to NBC Sports Boston. “We’re not going to put a limit or cap on Gordon’s progress,” Bartelstein said. “But at the same time, we’re not gonna put a number or date for him to come back, either. Like I said, he’s attacking the process of getting healthier, trying to get better from one day to the next.”
NOVEMBER 16: TRUE WARRIORS
The Celtics had reeled off 13 straight wins, but there was still some skepticism about just how good they really were. Facing Golden State would change all that. A win, and Boston’s winning streak would in many ways validate them as a legit contender. A loss and the Celtics would be seen as they are who we thought they were – a good team, but not quite on the same level as the defending NBA champions. After falling behind by double digits in the first quarter, Boston rallied and went into the fourth quarter tied at 68-68. The fourth quarter belonged to Boston’s present (Kyrie Irving) and future (Jayson Tatum) who combined for 18 of Boston’s 24 fourth-quarter points. Irving was particularly impressive, scoring seven of Boston’s last nine points of the game. Meanwhile, Golden State’s dynamic backcourt tandem of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson had 9 and 13 points, respectively. Curry struggled unlike we’ve seldom seen, missing 11 of his 14 shot attempts. Thompson wasn’t much better, connecting on just five of his 18 shot attempts. And, in the end, the 2017-18 Celtics had their first signature victory.