Celtics

Celtics

BOSTON -- Training camp was just about over and it was clear to all that Kyrie Irving was back but still shaking off the kind of inevitable rust that comes about with a long layoff.

Ditto for Gordon Hayward, whose first season with the Celtics lasted all of five minutes before suffering a season-ending injury in 2017.

The preseason slate of games saw the Celtics look nothing like the world-beaters that so many banked on seeing with Irving and Hayward back in the fold. 

“We feel like we arrived or something, like we won something,” Boston’s Terry Rozier said before the start of the season. “Teams know that, people talking about us every time you turn on the TV. So, that’s going to motivate them to beat us, second string, third string, it don’t matter who it is. So, we have to stay grounded and go back to playing Boston Celtics basketball and who we are instead of thinking we’re above everybody.”

Rozier’s words have an almost prophetic feel to them now with the team’s season over after a Game 5 loss at Milwaukee in the second round of the playoffs, which is the quickest postseason exit for the Celtics since 2016.

And it concludes a season that began with sky-high expectations that this Celtics team would venture even deeper into the title chase than the last two teams prior to this one, which both advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

Boston would go on to play the regular season with an almost cocky swagger, the kind that you see from defending champions and not teams still on the rise. 

 

The end result was a Celtics team finishing with an underwhelming 49-33 record, good enough for a fourth-place finish in the East. 

And yes, many foes were motivated by the lofty talk about Boston which included the Bucks, who sent the Celtics home for the summer in just five games on Wednesday. 

Rather than stay grounded, the Celtics’ ascension to title-contending status in the playoffs was grounded by a lack of team cohesion, a defense that was too dependent on shot-making to be any good when it mattered most, and last but certainly not least, a horrific second round of the playoffs by free agent-to-be Kyrie Irving which only fueled speculation that Game 4 at the TD Garden would be his final home game as a member of the Celtics. 

It’s hard to imagine that this team, one that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago and essentially added a pair of All-Stars in Irving and Hayward to the mix for this year’s postseason jaunt, would fail to take that all-important next step and advance to the NBA Finals or at a minimum get back to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

But as we saw, this was unlike any Celtics team we have seen in quite some time. 

KYRIE IRVING WANTS TO RE-SIGN 

As training camp began to wind down, Kyrie Irving knew his impending free agency was going to be a much-talked about topic of discussion seemingly wherever the Celtics went. 

Irving had been around the Celtics front office, staff and players for more than a year and felt a clear and undeniable comfort level so much so, that he wanted to forget about the whole free agency courtship and just re-sign with the Celtics this summer. 

He made his intentions known to the Celtics, and gathered teammates at his house to let them know of his decision before word got out. 

And near the end of a Celtics’ scrimmage in which season-ticket holders could attend at the TD Garden, he told the world of his plans to re-sign with Boston if “you guys will have me back.”

The reaction was a loud roar from the crowd, all feeling as though they finally had the missing piece that would make them title contenders for years to come. 

“I think it’s kind of neat that he did it where he did it,” said Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations to 98.5 The Sports Hub’s "Toucher & Rich" show. “With all of the fans there on that night. We had talked about it a little bit, but I guess that was just when he was ready to tell everybody he wanted to stay.”

 

"I think Kyrie has an understanding after being here a year, it’s all about legacy. To have a legacy here in Boston, it could be like none other in the NBA.” - Celtics legend Paul Pierce.

"It was a very nice surprise, just his commitment to the organization, and a sense that we can put all the speculation behind us and focus on the season. That was very big of him to do something like that." - Celtics Al Horford. 

“It means a lot when you have a guy that has won at the highest level, has been where you want to go, wants to do it again with you. It’s great for him, the organization and this city that he wants to come back.” - Celtics Marcus Smart. 

ABOUT THAT KYRIE COMMITMENT…

In January, Kyrie Irving made headlines when he seemed to have opened the door on his potential departure from Boston - in New York City of all cities, the home of the New York Knicks, who have made signing Irving one of their top priorities this offseason. 

“Ask me July 1” was Irving’s response when asked if he were re-thinking his verbal commitment to Boston in October. “I’m not worried about a reputation. I’m not worried about a legacy. I’m just a human being, trying to make the best decision for me and my family. Things this season haven’t gone how I planned. That’s part of being on a team where you’re still trying to figure things out. But at the end of the day, I spent the last eight years trying to do what everybody else wanted me to do in terms of making my decisions and trying to validate through media, other personnel, management … and I don’t owe anybody (expletive). I still have confidence in Boston and what they can promise for the future and what we have in terms of our pieces.

He added, “that’s what excited me a lot about the beginning of the season; the opportunity to come into this season doing what we planned on doing. Have a goal and go after it and see what happens at the end of the season. That was the plan before and that’s the plan now. Boston is still at the head of that race and that’s where it stands.”

No surprise, the basketball community had a mixed reaction to Irving’s comments. 

“Nobody knows what Kyrie Irving is going to do, not even Kyrie. No matter what he says or doesn’t say, he’s going to keep us all in the dark until he makes his decision and that’s not happening until this summer.” - Eastern Conference front-office official.

 

“I still think in the end he’ll stay in Boston. That franchise has too much going on personnel-wise, and he has a front office that he knows, knows what they’re doing.” - Eastern Conference official. 

“Kyrie is a ball-dominant, elite scorer who is being asked to play in a system that doesn’t play to his strengths. He’s doing the best he can, but he ain’t coming back to Boston not because of Brad (Stevens) or the players or anything like that. He wants to be in a system that lets him be Kyrie with a team built around him. What they do now in Boston, that ain’t it.” - Veteran NBA scout. 

TEAM MEETING 2.0

Near the end of the 2018 calendar year,  the Celtics finally started playing like a title-contender. After a 10-10 start, Boston reeled off eight straight wins only to follow that up with three straight losses. 

The third defeat, a 120-107 home loss to Milwaukee on Dec. 21, seemed to be the final straw for this group. After the game they held an impromptu team meeting that players had little to say about afterwards. 

And the following practice day, there was a second team meeting with players from the previous night agreeing to continue talks on Dec. 22. 

"At that point, playing against Milwaukee, we weren't at rock bottom, but we needed to address some [expletive] in this locker room,” Irving said. “It's just good to get stuff out in the air. As grown men and guys that have expectations for themselves, it was good to hear guys talk about what they wanted for themselves and what they wanted for this team."

Said Stevens: “Everyone has team meetings all the time. But, some are obviously more impactful, more transparent, a little bit more raw than others. Those are probably the most memorable, enjoyable and purposeful ones when you reflect back on the season. If done right those are really good. And our guys, did it right, well-intentioned.”

After the second meeting the Celtics won seven of their next nine games.

TRADE RUMORS

Despite his verbal commitment to re-sign with the Celtics this summer, Irving still found his name mentioned frequently among elite players likely on the move this summer with New York being the most popular destination. 

 

Irving’s future became a much-talked about topic of conversation in January after Anthony Davis demanded a trade from New Orleans. 

Boston could not engage the Pelicans fully on a trade because of a relatively lightly-used rule that prevented Davis and Irving to be signed by the same team at the same time, until this summer when Irving becomes a free agent and can then sign a new deal. 

Despite Irving’s fall Oct. 4 commitment to re-sign with the Celtics, he continued to hear his name brought up in conversations about his free agency and simply had enough of it during a media session in New York City on Feb. 1. 

The speculation only increased following Davis’ demand for a trade. 

“I spent the last eight years," Irving said, "trying to do what everyone else wanted me to do -- managers, other personnel -- and I don't owe anybody shit."

He added, “I still have confidence in Boston and what they can promise for the future and what we have in terms of pieces. That’s what excited me at the beginning of the season."

But that message is in stark contrast to some of his other commentary in January.  When asked if he had changed his mind about re-signing with the Celtics, Irving replied, “Ask me July 1.”

Irving would later add, “People talk about my future all the time. To me, it’s unfair to me, because I have a focus to really help this team be successful. When it starts getting out of hand and people start getting attacked personally and ‘he said she said,’ that’s so fifth grade and elementary."

Irving added, “It’s my decision at the end of the day. Who cares who said what’s best for him, like, it doesn’t matter. It’s unwarranted commentary, and of course it’s going to continue throughout the season. I’m aware of that. I’m a professional, I’m not going to disrespect anybody but like I said, it really comes down to what’s best for me and my family.”

WEST COAST TRIP

The Celtics did not finish the month of February off playing well, and the early portion of March didn’t look much better. Looming on the horizon was a four-game West coast trip full of teams that were playing well including the defending NBA champion Warriors. 

To the surprise of many, the Celtics were able to finish the trip with an impressive 3-1 record that included a victory at Golden State, prompting many to think that the plane ride over was the elixir to what this Celtics team needed to get on track and play to the promise that so many saw in them prior to the start of the season. 

“We were successful on this trip,” said Irving who added, “Now we go home to handle our business. We’ve got to keep it moving. Keep winning.”

 

But they didn’t, splitting their next eight games (4-4) while essentially reverting back to their up-and-down ways. 

SMART RETURNS FROM OBLIQUE INJURY 

The pre-game buildup at the TD Garden had a familiar face both on the Jumbotron and on the floor - Marcus Smart. 

Out almost four weeks to the day, Smart made a shocking return to the Celtics lineup after a torn oblique injury suffered against Orlando on April 7. He was supposed to be out 4-6 weeks with head coach Brad Stevens anticipating he would be out for closer to the six-week timeframe. 

Smart brought energy and effort, but he looked very much like a player who had not seen live game action for more than a month, as he scored just three points while missing six of his seven 3-pointers all of which were uncontested shots as the Bucks pulled away for a 113-101 win. 

THE BUCKS STOP (BOSTON) HERE

The playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks, much like the Celtics’ postseason run, began with such promise. Boston came into Milwaukee and stole home-court advantage with dominant Game 1, prompting some - OK, Paul Pierce - to proclaim the series was already over. 

He was right … sort of. 

The Bucks bounced back with a comparable throttling of the Celtics in Game 2, and took their winning formula on the road to take Games 3 and 4 and in doing so, a commanding 3-1 series lead. 

And in Game 5, the Celtics fell behind from the outset courtesy of an 8-0 run as Brad Stevens changed up the starting lineup, going with Aron Baynes in place of Marcus Morris in order to provide a lift to the second unit. 

It didn’t help much as Milwaukee spent the rest of the game playing with a lead before finally putting an end to the Celtics season with 116-91 win. 

"I think we've rehashed the season enough," said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. "There were clearly ups and downs as we navigated to find our way as a team and play our best basketball as a team."

But that point of arrival never came for the Celtics, with the season ending with Boston coming up short, well short of their own expectations for this season. And that's how most will remember the 2018-2019 Boston Celtics.

 

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