Finishing the regular season with a six-game winning streak left a lot of Celtics fans hoping they would at least be able to steal a game from the Cavaliers in the first round.
Instead, those fans will have to settle for having made life difficult for four games on LeBron James and company.
That, however, is not enough to satisfy players or coaches, as they admitted after Sunday’s 101-93 season-ending loss in Game 4 at TD Garden.
“We feel like we deserve more,” Isaiah Thomas said. “We’re proud, but we’re not satisfied. We see that this team has a lot of potential, we work hard, we like playing with each other, we play extremely hard and those are the keys to success. Its frustrating to see the season end like it did, but we got to try to build from this and come back next year ready for war.”
“It’s not about individuals, we are going home, so we could care less how we played at the end of the game,” Jared Sullinger said in referencing the several second half charges the Celtics put on only to come up short. “The fact of the matter is, we didn’t get any wins, and it was a good way to, I guess, end the season but at the same time our main focus and objective was to get a win tonight and we failed.”
Now, the mission for the players who return to Boston next season is to use the experience and build for next season, as Brad Stevens suggested after the game.
“I thought the Cavs did a lot of great things,” Stevens said. “I thought their individual talents stretched our defense. And I thought that our guys responded a lot of times well, but not quite well enough to get three eight-point losses in a row, right? So, yeah, I mean, tons. You’re always trying to grow and get better, but that’s going to be the same as if we’re fortunate enough to cut down the nets some day. I wouldn’t think that would change how you would approach the next day anyways.
“I think the best way to phrase it is I like our progress but I like to win. So I’m disappointed right now. But it’s now at anybody or at myself or at any ‘ it’s just, you’re disappointed to lose. We have to get better; we have to get better in every which way, and that’s the challenge ahead. Because winning’s a lot more fun.”
Nearly every Celtics player echoed that sentiment after Game 4.
“We do take a lot of positives out of it,” Thomas said. “We know we can compete with anybody in the NBA. People counted us out and we just kept fighting, we kept believing in ourselves, we kept coming work every day with our hard hat on and working hard and doing the things that we can control. If we can do that in the summer, next training camp, next season, then we got a bright future with this group of guys.”
“It’s a very respectable group,” added center Tyler Zeller. “They tell you what they think which is nice, but they do a great job of encouraging you, putting you in the right places and just trying to give you the best opportunity where you are.”
Can this four-game series be a valuable resource down the road?
“I think it will be very important,” Zeller said. “It gives you an idea of what to prepare for. All those little things that you’ve got to take care of, you’ve got to be able to get rid of them. Regular season you can get away with them but playoffs you can’t, so it gives you kind of that initiative to always pay attention to them and always be very aware of them.”
“A lot of knowledge, the experience is huge,” Evan Turner added. “I think once again, after you grow together, we get more games and experiences under our belts and hopefully if we’re all together this time next year we’ll be in a different position, different seed and hopefully further and deeper in the playoffs.”
For all the harsh words between the players Sunday after Cleveland ended Boston’s season with a 101-93 win in Game 4, LeBron James had nothing but respect for the job coach Brad Stevens did in getting his team to play hard to the final buzzer.
After losing by 13 in the first game, the Celtics lost three straight, all by eight points. In each game, the Celtics made a late run to keep things interesting before succumbing to the better team.
“I highly respect their coaching staff and especially their head coach,” James said. “[They’re] a very well-coached team. He put those guys out there every night and put them in position to win the game and I think Brad Stevens is a very good young coach in our league.”
For a team that finished 40-42, the Celtics gave the Cavaliers about as much of a fight as could’ve been expected.
Then James spoke to what it means to have finally beaten the Celtics in the playoffs with Cleveland, after losses in 2008 and 2010.
“This franchise is one of the most winning franchises in NBA history, [along] with the Lakers,” James said. “So, everyone knows the history between the Lakers and the Celtics and what they’ve done for this league. So for me, to have a chapter in my career, multiple chapters, of playing against the Celtics, I think it’s great for the story that [the media can] tell.”
This is the second time James has sent the Celtics packing, beating them in seven games in the Eastern finals in 2012. That year, the Heat went on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, giving LeBron his first NBA title. James is now eight wins away from his fifth straight trip to the NBA finals, a goal that is clearly again on his radar.
“Our long term goal is obviously to win the championship but right now we have short term goals and that’s to prepare ourselves for the next round and get ready for the challenge that presents itself,” James said. “It was a great first test for our team. We’re a young team, we have some vets but we’re a young team together. The Celtics gave us the test that we needed. Some things that we haven’t seen in the regular season, and it will prepare us for the second round, which will be much tougher, we know that.”
In the end, the mighty Cavaliers swept the youthful Celtics out of the playoffs. But there were plenty of other story lines throughout the game. They just weren’t very positive ones.
It started in the first quarter when Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Love got tangled going ofter a loose ball. Olynyk dislocated Love’s shoulder in the process and Love was obviously out for the rest of the game — and likely the foreseeable future.
Then, in the second quarter, old friend Kendrick Perkins set a hard pick that knocked Jae Crowder to the floor. This was followed by a near brawl in which Perkins slapped Crowder across the face.
Just as it seemed things were starting to calm down early in the second half, J.R. Smith made a DIRTY play on Crowder that sent him to the ground. Smith was ejected for a flagrant-2 foul, while Crowder left the game with a sprained knee and will have more tests done soon.
After the game, most people viewed Olynyk and Love’s tie-up as just that … a typical basketball play. Even Love’s coach, David Blatt, said that he “doesn’t feel it’s in the character of Olynyk” to intentionally hurt his player.
A demanding Love felt differently following the game: “I thought it was a bush-league play. I have no doubt in my mind he did it on purpose,” he told reporters. “That’s just not a basketball play. The league will take a look at it and it better be swift and just.”
LeBron James agreed that “it didn’t look like a basketball play,” which he’s entitled to. But the Cavs might want to pick their battles a little bit better when it comes to the intent behind fouls.
J.R. Smith choosing to argue that his punch to Crowder’s face wasn’t intentional isn’t the best look for a team whimpering about a couple of players getting tangled going after a ball.
“I tried to swing my arm loose thinking it was the best way to try to get my arm up in position to rebound and we made contact,” Smith explained. “There was nothing malicious about it. I didn’t try to do anything to hurt him or anybody else. That’s not the way I play the game, and unfortunately I got a flagrant-2.”
It wasn’t a good day for anybody. The Celtics had their season end, and the Cavs are going to begin the second-round likely without both Smith and Love. This was a lose-lose in some senses. The league will sit down and review how they feel about the fouls on both teams, but if the Cavs think they’re in the right here, they’re probably in for a surprise.
As Celtics forward Jae Crowder battled for a rebound with Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith early in the third quarter, the latter swung his arm into the former’s face, sending Crowder to the ground as his leg buckled beneath him.
Crowder did not return to the game, and neither did Smith, who earned a flagrant 2 foul, an ejection and possibly a suspension for his actions.
The initial diagnosis from doctors who examined Crowder is a left knee sprain, but the soon-to-be restricted free agent will undergo an MRI either on Sunday night or Monday morning to confirm there is no structural damage.
“I haven’t seen it, but we don’t know exactly what the deal is yet,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Smith’s foul. “He had a lower leg potential injury as he fell, but he’s going to go get an MRI and everything else. I guess he got elbowed to the head, and that’s how he fell. I shouldn’t be saying that, because I couldn’t see the play from my vantage point, but that’s what I was told. It’s what I know.”
Following a successful run with the organization since coming to Boston in return for Rajon Rondo this past December, Crowder’s re-signing is expected to be among the C’s highest priorities this summer.