TFW when you’re already the #1 Seed in the East, add an additional All-Star to your squad, and notice your biggest Conference rival imploding.
Danny Ainge and the Celtics front office weren’t the only ones busy this summer. All summer I was clearing room, moving around content and assets in Google Docs like Danny clearing cap space. For Christian Williams and myself, this was by far our hardest season wrap-up to write. Not only because of how long the post-season stretched—with the C’s reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2012—but also the lightning-quick pace of the NBA offseason news.
We spent months debating on how to cover the team, and added, cut and re-arranged so many different parts of the piece. It seemed like Danny annihilated our analysis every week. Celts get the #1 pick. C-Will: “Go Fultz or go home!” Trader Danny: “Pickswap. Say hi to Jayson Tatum.” Jordan: “How are the C’s gonna handle the backcourt dilemma?” Ainge: “Done. Peace, Avery Bradley!”
The C’s have made moves to help close the gap between themselves and the Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. As currently constituted, they are still a notch below Cleveland, but with the potential for Kyrie Irving’s departure, that could all change soon. One thing is for sure—change was the only constant for The Celtics this summer. Read on for the 2016-2017 Celtics Season Wrap-Up, where Jordan and Christian team up to breakdown a transformative year for Boston.
Written by Jordan Martins & Christian Williams (of The LA Times)
This small ball lineup was key to the Celtics turnaround against The Bulls.
Jordan’s Take on The Celtics’ Playoffs Run
Coming into this season, both myself and Christian Williams agreed with most columnists that the Boston Celtics would be the #2 team in the East. We cited a solid defensive core, along with a much-needed size and talent upgrade with Al Horford.
Horford was not dominant offensively, and failed to put up the type of numbers one would associate with a max deal. However, his fingerprints are all over the Celtics’ success. The true reason the C’s surged to #1 in the East, was because of Isaiah Thomas’ emergence as one of the best (clutch) scorers in the NBA—averaging 9.8 points in the fourth quarter throughout the season.1 However, Horford did a lot of the dirty work to set up Thomas. Horford set screens, helped space the floor, and handed the ball off to The Little Guy. I was most impressed with Al come playoff time. He helped anchor the team on-and-off the court in an up-and-down playoff run. Horford’s veteran leadership helped a group without a ton of deep playoff experience stay the course for a truly emotional campaign. Horford’s numbers never jump out at you, but in the playoffs he really showed his value beyond just the box score.
Emotional leader Isaiah Thomas steadied the team in the first series, despite the tragic loss of his sister a day before the start of the opening round. After going down 0-2 to the Bulls, the conversation shifted to Brad Stevens’ playoff record.2 Stevens responded with a lineup change and went ultra small by inserting spark plug Gerald Green into the starting lineup at small forward. Green responded by hitting two 3s and bringing energy to Game 3, then a 18 point (4-9 from 3), 7 rebound performance in Game 4. Green wasn’t the only one invigorating Boston. Right before Game 3, KG called (former) team trainer Ed Lacerte, and left a voicemail message that motivated the team. The C’s would go on to steam roll the Bulls, and silence pundits everywhere. There’s still folks who swear The Bulls could’ve taken the series if Rondo did not get injured with a fractured right thumb.
Coach Stevens was caught in a chess match with Scott Brooks—although it seemed as if the latter was playing checkers, because his rotations were terrible. Although Brad did have some trouble with his rotations when guys like Amir Johnson became unplayable.3 There was Kelly beef, buzzer beaters, IT4 got his tooth knocked out, and the home team took every win. An all around excellent series, and probably the most exciting round besides The Finals.4 The Wiz had a more talented starting 5, but Boston outlasted Washington, and a gassed Celtics team advanced to face The Cavs.
Just two days separated Game 7 vs Washington, and Game 1 against Cleveland. The Celtics opened the series looking worse for wear, and fell into a 0-2 hole they couldn’t climb out of. Isaiah’s heroic playoff run came to a close with a hip injury in Game 2.5 Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley had excellent Game 3 performances to stave off the sweep, but Cleveland ultimately took the series in 5.6
Christian’s Take on The Celtics’ Playoffs Run
Before I give my take on the Celtics’ playoff run, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that trying to watch a playoff game while still at work on the West Coast is quite easily the bane of my existence. When games start at 4pm and you’re in Laker-town, it is damn near impossible to garner any sympathy in the office to get the TV turned on for you. Okay, now that that’s out of my system… this playoff run gave us pretty much what we had hoped for since the start of the season.
With a 53-29 regular season record, the Celtics were able to stake claim to the number one seed in the East and hold onto a very much needed home-court advantage throughout their playoff run. And boy did they need it. Despite nearly giving up said advantage right out the gate in the opening round to the Chicago Bulls, the Celtics were able to right the ship, winning that series in 6 games ( the clincher being at home). They then went on to win a pivotal Game 7 against the Washington Wizards on the parquet floor, in what arguably was the most competitive series in the entire playoffs. Home-court was clearly important for the team to have during this run as the team’s role players performed far better in the 617 than on the road (shout out to Kelly Olynyk!). Of course the team would run into the inevitable buzz saw that was the LeBron’s Cavs, but that was always expected, right?
I mean sure, there was the fighter’s chance that Boston had. Not much different than McGregor vs. Mayweather. Under the right circumstances, the underdog could very well pull off the upset for the ages. However, the Celtics needed to play almost perfect basketball for four out of seven games in order to close such a gap in talent.
And that was with the assumption Thomas would be in the lineup. Being forced to sit out the remainder of the playoffs, the MVP candidate point guard would have to watch in street clothes as his team met its inevitable doom, falling to The Cavs in 5 games. Speaking of Thomas, the Little Engine That Could, could not have been asked to give any more. Having sacrificed both his body and emotional health for the betterment of the team, the history of the 2017 NBA playoffs will always and forever be filled with the chapter on the heroics of Isaiah Thomas.
Jordan Martins Covers “THE LITTLE GUY!” © Tommy Heinsohn
Isaiah Thomas accomplished so many feats this past season, even he had to adjust his goals. Isaiah is known for thinking highly of himself, and shifted his sights from “being the best little guy ever” to the best player ever. He got co-signs from Allen Iverson AND Michael Jordan, two of the most influential guards to play the game.
The 5’9” guy with a chip on his shoulder showed that he could lead a team to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The 60th pick in the 2011 Draft, bested the #1 pick in the 2010 Draft (John Wall) in the playoffs. The diminutive guard put together performances that fans will remember for some time, he put up numbers that matched Celtics greats, and became one of the most popular Boston sports figures ever. No easy feat—especially for a guy under 6 feet—but he showed the requisite grit and “win by any means necessary” mentality that makes you popular in New England.
For a stretch in January, the entire league watched as he checked his imaginary watch, and absolutely destroyed in the 4th quarter. He hit big shot after big shot, got to the line with ease, knocked down deep 3 pointers, and sunk numerous game-clinching shots. Thomas’ clutch play helped the Celtics pull out many close games—Boston finished a the season with a narrow plus-2.7 point differential.7 Isaiah led the Celtics to a lot of victories, and became a darkhorse MVP candidate.
Post All-Star break, teams game planned for The King of The 4th, with strategies including triple teaming him, double-teaming as soon as he reached half-court, running a full-court press, and hard fouls. Although IT4’s 4th quarter dominance waned as the season drew to a close, Isaiah finished the season averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists in under 34 minutes per game (while shooting 37.9% from downtown and 90.9% from the line). Isaiah maintained a high level of play all year, but opposing teams found ways to slow down the hero ball, and his fellow teammates struggled to chip in with 3 pointers towards the end of the schedule.8
He ultimately carried the team on his shoulders all year, and lifted them to new heights despite his undersized frame. IT4 led the Celtics in scoring 43 times since the new year. His plus/minus numbers were off the charts, with the Celtics struggling to score when IT was not on the floor.
Injuries ultimately ended IT4’s post-season, but he was able to play through personal adversity, oral surgery, and traveling for funeral arrangements. This makes Isaiah’s prolific scoring output throughout the playoffs all the more impressive. Isaiah showing out in the playoffs despite injuries and family tragedy all but cemented him as a long term Celtic in my eyes. Danny does need to back up the Brinks truck and retain Isaiah. Sign the max deal, The Little Guy has endeared himself to the fans.
SEASON STORYLINES BREAKDOWN
Jordan Martins breaks down some of the C’s key storylines for 2016-2017.
The Emergence of Jaylen Brown
One of the best parts of the season was watching the development of Jaylen Brown. I haven’t been this impressed with a Celtics rookie since Al Jefferson.9 Fans went from booing Brown on Draft Night, to cheering loudly for him throughout the year. It was hard not to cheer for the rookie—he made a ton of energetic plays and carved out a solid role towards the latter part of the season and the playoffs. Injuries opened a lot of playing time the Cal product, and he took advantage and earned his minutes on the court. His promising play against The Cavs was one of the only highlights of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Injury Bug
It’s amazing the C’s racked up 53 wins given all the injuries the team battled this year. Key guys like Al Horford, Avery Bradley, and Isaiah Thomas all missed games. Back in March, ESPN’s Chris Forsberg shared an excellent breakdown of the Celtics injury chart during the season. It doesn’t even include Isaiah’s bone bruise that occurred in March, but is still quite lengthy.
Early on in the season Al Horford suffered a concussion, and missed nine games. Needless to say it didn’t help endear him to fans. Avery Bradley missed a bunch of time with injuries—unfortunately a recurring theme for his Boston tenure—and it derailed the impressive offensive momentum he had to start the season.
Given all of Boston’s summer activity, it’s easy to forget that we all killed Ainge on Twitter for not improving the Celtics at the February Trade Deadline. Fans found it super easy to criticize him in this hot take/instant gratification 24/7
sports news cycle culture we’re in.
A lot of insiders say there was no star player available at the deadline. Both myself and C Will wanted Ainge to risk it all with Demarcus Cousins.10 Of course, that was before NOLA pried him away in exchange for some peanuts, the rights to Buddy Hield, and some po’ boys.
“Celtics Are A Model For All Rebuilds”
After blowing up The Big 3 back in Summer 2013, in just four short years, Danny Ainge has built something exceedingly rare in the NBA. The 2016-2017 Celtics squad exceeded everyone’s expectations (except their own) and got the #1 seed, while receiving the #1 draft pick via the Brooklyn Nets. (Shoutout to Billy King!). How crazy is that?!? Props to Danny and the Celtics brass for putting out such an effective product, while being in position to contend in the future. ESPN’s Michael Smith broke down how the Celtics are a model for all rebuilds.
- IT4 was only bested by MVP Russell Westbrook who averaged 10 points in the 4th. [↩]
- What a piping hot take! Boston radio personalities ate this one up. Brad’s record to that point was less than ideal because the Celtics were overmatched and swept by Cleveland in 2015, in 2016 the C’s fell to the Hawks after Avery Bradley’s season ending injury. [↩]
- Amir seemed like a great guy, but has zero lift left. Not the guy you want anchoring your defense, although I’m sure he’ll be a great locker room presence in Philly given all their young guys. Amir is only 30-years-young, but it’s been 12 years since his rookie year and he looks utterly and completely #WASHED. [↩]
- Which were pretty lopsided depending on the game. I remember almost falling asleep thinking the Cavs securing Game 3, until KD pulled up and hit the dagger that killed any hope Cleveland had left in the series. [↩]
- The injury hampered him starting late in the Wizards series. [↩]
- Everyone wrote the team off, and some wrote the C’s off as early as the Bulls series. I had an exchange with NY Daily News columnist Carron Phillips—after the C’s stole Game 3 on the road. [↩]
- It’s worth noting that the C’s were the number one seed with the lowest point differential since the 2003 Pistons. [↩]
- Given the additions of Hayward and Tatum, there should be less scoring droughts for the C’s moving forward. [↩]
- Coincidentally that was the year I truly fell in love with the Celtics and 14 year old me watched nearly every game of the 2004-2005 squad. [↩]
- Bill Simmons did an awesome “what if?” column on Boogie, breaking down the good and the bad. [↩]