Good riddance, 2018-19 Celtics' regular season

Good riddance, 2018-19 Celtics' regular season

Good riddance to the Boston Celtics' 2018-19 regular season.

You will not be remembered fondly. Brad Stevens ought to take a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook and, when the team huddles Wednesday, bury a basketball or some game film somewhere beneath the Auerbach Center.

A season that started with such unbridled optimism turned bleak in a hurry. We hyped up the team’s talent-filled (and finally healthy!) starting lineup, gave it a snazzy Warriors-like nickname, and it fizzled before Thanksgiving. We gushed about Boston’s depth and yet no one could figure out their roles. Instead of playing like the beasts of a LeBron-less East that they were widely pegged, the Celtics routinely crumbled under the heavy burden of expectations.

There were more closed-door meetings than signature wins. By January, cameras caught Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown shoving each other in frustration in front of the Boston bench. Kyrie Irving got so fed up with Boston’s younger players that he called LeBron James. Before the All-Star break, Marcus Morris said the season hadn’t been fun for a long time.

In hindsight, he was pretty spot on.

Before real games started, it was all sunshine and puppy dogs. Kyrie Irving declared his desire to re-sign in Boston and basked in the afterglow for a few months. But, fueled in part by Boston’s struggles, speculation about his future returned to headlines over All-Star weekend. Film of him talking to good friend (and fellow free-agent-to-be) Kevin Durant was dissected with Zapruder-like intensity. Irving grumped in the aftermath and Terry Rozier noted it weighed on a team that often fed off Irving’s energy.

These Celtics had an uncanny ability to fumble away double-digit leads. They often crumbled at the first sign of adversity. Stevens gave his team every opportunity to play through their issues and, ultimately, he waited so long that even Stevens ended up in the crosshairs of angry Celtics fans, something that seemed unfathomable during his tenure.

Every time it seemed like the Celtics couldn’t produce a worse loss, they somehow found a new way to one-up themselves. A loss to the lowly Knicks was dubbed rock bottom in November. That was wildly premature. The Celtics broke out their shovels and dug deeper on multiple occasions. Now, we're not even certain that Knicks loss would crack the Top 5 worst of the season.

OK, you get the point. The regular season was brutal. But here’s the good news: It’s over! Bring on the playoffs, baby.

We’d like to welcome back all the readers that got so fed up by mid-March (if you hung around that long) that you basically just checked out on the regular season. You missed some great stories (just kidding, they were as inconsistent as Boston’s play).

But we’re harping on the negative here. A funny thing happened the past few weeks: The Celtics quietly started playing better. Aron Baynes elevated to the starting lineup and jump-started a defense that had been sliding backward for two months. Gordon Hayward, his post-All-Star momentum twice stunted by injury, found both his confidence and his aggression, and has played like someone who could be an X-factor in the postseason. The Celtics have seen long glimpses of Playoff Kyrie and Playoff Al Horford, and — so long as Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum can get healthy — this team has all the necessary parts to make a legitimate postseason run.

Yes, for all the consternation about how downright infuriating Boston’s regular season was and as much as we rode the highs and lows of the roller coaster, it will be merely a footnote to the season if the Celtics surge in the playoffs.

Truth be told, this season was never going to be judged based on what happened in the regular season. The Celtics didn’t always inspire confidence and they made their path to postseason success a bit more daunting, but they still have the talent to compete for the berth in the Finals that slipped away a year ago.

Farewell, regular season. It was an 82-game slog that didn’t come close to matching expectations. Fortunately for the Celtics, there’s still time to right some wrongs. 

Bring on the playoffs.

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Happy 31st birthday, Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins Game 7 duel

Happy 31st birthday, Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins Game 7 duel

Thirty-one years ago today, the old Boston Garden was the site of one of the great superstar duels the NBA has ever seen.

Larry Bird vs. Dominque Wilkins. Celtics vs. Hawks. Eastern Conference Semifinal Game 7.

On a Sunday afternoon, in the first of a Garden playoff doubleheader (the Bruins and Edmonton Oilers would play Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final later that night), the two Hall of Famers staged a one-on-one battle to remember.

Bird and the Celtics came out on top, 118-116. Wilkins finished with 47 points - 12 in the fourth quarter - on 19-for-33 shooting. Bird had 20 of his 34 points in the fourth and was 15-for-24 for the game. And, in an ode to how different a game the NBA was then - each player only hit one 3-pointer. 

Tommy Heinsohn was the CBS analyst for the game with Brent Musburger doing the play-by-play. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers was in Atlanta's backcourt. Heinsohn and Rivers looked back at the game with the voice of the Celtics.

Heinsohn: "Once it started to happen, you just saw the desire of both these players." 

Rivers: "The crowd here was amazing. I gotta tell you, I fell in love with the Celtic crowd in this game."

The Celtics would go on to lose to the Detroit Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but this game provided a lasting memory from that postseason.

Perhaps Musburger put it best after another late Bird drive and finish: "You are watching what greatness is all about."

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Marcus Smart 'honored' by All-Defensive selection, but has one goal in mind

Marcus Smart 'honored' by All-Defensive selection, but has one goal in mind

Marcus Smart's reaction to being named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team was not all that surprising.

“I was ecstatic,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston in a phone interview. “I’m definitely appreciative of being recognized for what I do defensively. But I’m not in this for awards or accolades. I want to win games, win a championship.”

And that made for a bittersweet time for Smart, happy for his own individual accomplishment but more than willing to trade it in for another round or two of basketball for the Celtics. 

Smart also tweeted his appreciation and his desire for a title rather than individual honors.

With each passing day since their playoff exit, there has been a growing sense of discord surrounding the Celtics' season, which ended with them being eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals in just five games by the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Smart has been vacationing since the season ended and said he has not heard or paid much attention to the talk surrounding what happened and didn’t happen with the Celtics' season.

In his end-of-the-season interview with the media, Smart didn’t hesitate in defending Kyrie Irving from criticisms that his leadership was a problem for the team. 

“That’s bull[expletive]," Smart said at the time. "Not one of us on this team knows what Kyrie’s been through. Probably a few people in this world know what Kyrie goes through. It was hard for him as well. He was forced into a situation where it was business over the friendships, where he had to come into a situation knowing that this is a group of guys that had something going before I come here, how will I fit in? He didn’t want to disrupt that. And that says a lot.

Smart added, “This is Kyrie Irving we’re talking about. And he’s talking about coming in and disrupting us. We took him in with full arms and we tried to understand it. Like I said, we never really understood. We’re not in his shoes. So that’s just a bull(expletive) statement to say his leadership killed us. There’s four other guys out there, there’s 12, 13 other guys on the team, coaches and everything. So to blame it on one guy is bull[expletive].”

Another heavily talked-about criticism of the Celtics this past season centered around them having too much talent and not enough playing time or prominent roles to go around to keep most of the players happy. 

Smart acknowledged the team’s overflow of depth was among the challenges the players and coaching staff tried to work through, to no avail. 

“We had a lot of talent; we were stacked, one through five,” Smart said. “It just didn’t work.”

As the longest-tenured Celtic, Smart, who was drafted fifth overall in 2014, has been around the organization long enough to know that Danny Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations, will not stand pat this summer. 

Smart said he has no idea what changes will be made, but Ainge’s track record makes it pretty obvious that the Celtics will have a different look when training camp opens in a few months. 

Smart said his confidence level in Ainge is “real high” when it comes to adding talent,  but said, “That's Danny’s job. That’s for the front office to figure out. But I do believe Danny and those guys will figure out what we need to do to be better next season.”

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