They were so close. Six minutes and four seconds away, really. That’s 2:45 closer than the grit-and-balls Celtics were to unseating LeBron James and reaching the Finals six years ago.
I loved covering that 2012 team. Kevin Garnett said we couldn’t even understand how much massaging and stretching and ice bathing it took to get back to the arena every day, and then he tried telling us again the next night. Paul Pierce’s age finally caught up to his old man game. Ray Allen had bone spurs in both ankles. And Playoff Rondo, man. That team was on its last legs. And they had no business leading LeBron James 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals.
When Allen left that summer, Rondo tore his ACL and Ainge traded Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn, I wasn’t sure I’d get to write about another team that gave us so damn much. Which is why I loved covering this team, too. They plugged holes left by their two best players, starting a second-round pick and a dude still in a cast opposite MVP candidates. This team was finding its legs. And they had no business leading LeBron James 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Seriously, remember this team …
Three years after CBS wrote off Rozier on draft night, he dropped a triple-double in his first career start, replacing the injured Kyrie Irving. He scored a career-high 31 points the next night.
And that was merely a prelude to a sublime playoff performance. His scoring bursts closed Game 1 and broke open Game 7 against the Bucks, and in between he started a feud with Eric Bledsoe that resurrected a former Patriots quarterback from a winery in Washington. He scored 29 points to start the 76ers series, and while that 0-for-10 effort from distance in Game 7 against the Cavaliers will sit with us, let’s not forget he dropped 28 in Game 6 when nobody else would.
Through it all, there was that smile, the one that reminded you we’re supposed to be enjoying this. Basketball is fun, and we saw that every time he hung three fingers in the air like he was sprinkling salt on his opponents. Then he dropped confetti on his Scary Terry shirt to rub it in.
That’s a member of the Arizona media saying good riddance to Morris three years ago. Morris replaced Avery Bradley, the last link to the Pierce era, and we didn’t think much more of him than his salary fit Gordon Hayward under the cap. The dude was on trial for assault when he arrived with a bum knee, and a few weeks later he was starting for the 15-game win streak.
He jacked so many contested long jumpers and dribbled out enough shot clocks that the nickname Iso Mook stuck, and it might’ve bothered us more had he not reminded Joel Embiid who was up 3-0 in the Philadelphia series and screamed straight in Tristan Thompson’s face.
His locker sat sandwiched between Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and he loved nothing more than to talk shit to them. The guy called himself the LeBron stopper and then outplayed him in Game 1.A Never forget a Morris twin was the backbone of an Eastern Conference finalist.
“Smart is literally enduring the worst season shooting three pointers in NBA history.”
— Boston.com, March 28, 2016
“Marcus Smart was not the worst 3-point shooter in the league this season. But he was the worst 3-point shooter who routinely took a lot of threes.”
— FiveThirtyEight.com, June 26, 2017
“Smart’s shooting isn’t just bad. It isn’t even doing him justice to call it historically bad. Smart is actually the NBA’s worst full-time shooter in the last 50-plus years.”
— WEEI.com, November, 28, 2017
They’re not wrong. Smart has been the league’s worst high-volume 3-point shooter or close to it for three years running now. But he’s so much more than that. He’s an experience. He drew two charges in the final seconds against likely MVP James Harden to seal a win against the NBA’s best team in the regular season. He nearly tore a tendon punching a picture frame because he missed a game-winner, and then he actually tore it chasing down a loose ball a few weeks later.
When Smart returned early from that injury, sporting a soft cast on his thumb, his fire raged the C’s to a pivotal Game 5 win against the Bucks. Each game delivered the Most Marcus Smart Sequence until he topped it the next. He found his apex when he missed his first free throw in a close-out game they led by one with 2.4 seconds left, tried to miss the second only to make it, and then covered the length of the court to seal a series against the Sixers with an interception.
Smart was the heart of these C’s, and he carried a heavy one, mourning his mother’s incurable cancer diagnosis throughout the playoffs. He may not be able to shoot, but as Brown so often reminded us, deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want Smart on that wall.
“They’re not all that well positioned to contend next year, and without Fultz, the young core still doesn’t have any player who looks like a future superstar. Maybe that will come via next year’s Nets pick? Or the Lakers/Kings pick? Or another trade? Or maybe it’ll change with a promising rookie season from Tatum. The only guarantee is that arguments about the Celtics will continue for at least another few years. This is our new version of the Sixers. Everyone in basketball has an opinion on what the Celtics are doing with their assets, why they’re doing it, and whether it’s stupid or brilliant. I’m just not sure it needed to be this complicated.”
— Sports Illustrated, July 10, 2017
The book on Tatum was he couldn’t get stops and couldn’t shoot 3’s, and then he started 81 games for the NBA’s best defense, establishing himself as one of the league’s best marksmen. He had all the moves of a 10-year vet from the moment you saw him, and then he added more.
The Rookie of the Year conversation centered around Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell all season, and Tatum was content winning games within the flow of the offense — until it turned out he was the flow of the offense. He was the only option in Game 7 opposite LeBron, and he might’ve recreated Paul Pierce’s 2008 moment had the Celtics figured it out in time. At least he threw down on Bron before it was over and left no doubt about the real rookie race when it was.
We should mention Tatum had a son midway through the season. A $5 million salary can smooth the transition into fatherhood, but that’s still a heavy burden to bear at 19 years old. You’ll grow up quick when you know you’ve got a mouth to feed every morning, and few have grown quite like Tatum. He loves that kid, calls him Deuce, and beams with pride when he sees him after every game, win or lose, and Boston probably feels the same way staring back at him.
“Jaylen Brown is a really polarizing player when you talk to team people. A lot of people don’t like him. One guy told me last week, ‘What’s to like? He can’t dribble, and he can’t shoot.’”
— The Lowe Post, October 3, 2017
Well, that guy probably feels stupid. I’m fairly certain Brown has to dribble to unleash all those dunks he gave the NBA, and he shot 40 percent on 4.4 3-point attempts per game. You know what else is to like? Defense and a rare blend of athleticism and intellect. Oh, and that time he buried a stepback game-winner against the Jazz, when Tatum embraced him. That was likable.
Brown eclipsed 30 points twice in his first four playoff games before straining his hamstring. He sat a game, eased back in against the Sixers, and then averaged 20 points over his final eight playoff outings, shooting the lights out until they went dark on him in Game 7 against the Cavs.
Brown is a tough nut to crack, because on one hand he’s delivering a dissertation on systemic oppression in the school system at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the next he’s calling smaller defenders “little one” in the post. He rarely settles and often flexes. When you’re talking to him, you get the sense he knows something you don’t. There’s a lot to like.
“The thought that immediately jumped to your mind is that obviously this was a rematch of the Eastern Conference finals … and then all of a sudden, when that happened, you just looked at Boston and you said, ‘Hey, they’re done.’ Jaylen Brown is impressive. Jayson Tatum in only his first game was impressive. Kyrie is Kyrie. We all know that, but Gordon Hayward was a huge, huge piece to all of this, and the fact that he’s gone down, you don’t want to sit up there and put that kind of omen on the team, but it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to be the significant players that we all anticipated that they would be as a team without him.”
— Stephen A. Smith, ESPN, October 17, 2018
Man, that sucked.
We’ve been over this. Many times. In between a former Red Sox utility player turned Celtics troll repeatedly calling Horford average, the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the NBA made his fifth trip to the All-Star Game while also ranking among the league’s elite big men as a shooter (42.9 percent on 3.1 attempts from 3 per game), playmaker (4.7 assists a night) and rebounder (he grabbed two-thirds of the rebounds that became available in his vicinity).
Horford was even better in the playoffs, averaging 17 points (on 57.8 percent shooting), nine rebounds, three assists and 2.5 combined blocks and steals per game through the first two rounds, all while defending Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons, a pair of point forwards who ranked among the top 20 vote-getters in All-NBA balloting this season. The show came to a close against Cleveland, and I still can’t quite figure out why Tristan Thompson is his kryptonite.
Horford isn’t LeBron James. He won’t dominate a box score, but he’s earned the respect of his peers and more inside his own locker room, where he’s a calming influence. While his younger teammates pop in earbuds and scroll through phones, he sits at his corner stall, with everyone in full view. You can almost hear him thinking through answers to your questions, considering every angle. Confident he’s put in the work, Horford makes the trek down the hallway, picks up his young son and daughter, and leaves with his pregnant wife. We should all be so average.
“The fleeting hopes New England had for a Boston Celtics playoff run went away Wednesday afternoon with the team’s announcement that Kyrie Irving will undergo his second surgery in less than two weeks on his left knee.”
— Tim Bontemps, The Washington Post, April 5, 2018
Man, that really sucked. You know who the Celtics could’ve used during all those offensive lulls in the Cleveland series? A guy who can go get you a bucket whenever he wants. The dude who took down the Warriors with a Game 7 winner in their arena. Kyrie Freakin’ Irving. Damn was he electric, and it’s a shame we never got to see him plug into the Garden crowd for the playoffs.
When the Celtics signed Baynes to an affordable one-year deal, be honest: You figured they scored themselves a decent backup. Like, if they had added Greg Monroe last summer instead, you would’ve been more amped. After watching them for a full season, now how do you feel?
Embiid really only saw Baynes for a series, and apparently the lockdown defense and the added bonus of a floor-stretching corner 3-point shot wasn’t enough to him over, even after the Celtics center helped eliminate the Sixers in five games. Embiid was too busy watching Instagram highlights of people trying to posterize the man-bunned behemoth to notice, I guess. But Baynes isn’t worried about embarrassment so long as he gets the job done more times than not.
And why be embarrassed when, as Tommy Heinsohn shared in a story about the time he saw him in the shower, Baynes is packing “All of Australia.” He knows what he brings, even if the outside world can’t see it. Now that he’s here, though, you figure the Celtics scored a keeper.
“When’s the last time the Bucks won a playoff series? That changes this year. The Milwaukee Bucks are going to beat the Boston Celtics. … If Boston wins this series, to me it’ll be an upset. Everybody should pick Milwaukee because of Giannis and Bledsoe and those guys.”
— Charles Barkley, Inside the NBA, April 15, 2018
The C’s, sans Smart for four games, beat the Bucks in seven games despite Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scoring a combined 50.4 points per game on 58.4 percent shooting, because they played as a team, outworking, outhustling, outsmarting — outplaying the Bucks.
“It’s easy. If you’re including in the question, if everyone is healthy, it’s the Sixers without question. You just heard Charles Oakley say Joel Embiid is Wilt Chamberlain and Ben Simmons is LeBron James. That’s a really good 1-2 punch.”
— Mike Greenberg, ESPN, April 24, 2018
Eighteen of ESPN’s 21 NBA experts picked the Sixers to win the series, including a few who figured Philly would win in five, because Embiid and Simmons are alleged matchup nightmares. Except, the C’s flipped the script. Their youth waged a war, winning every battle, even without their 25-year-old superstar. And The Confetti Game. We’ll always have The Confetti Game.
“You talk about LeBron’s dominance over Boston, that’s a real thing now. We made a big deal out of LeBron’s winning streak against the Raptors in the playoffs going into this series. He had won six straight, he had won three consecutive games in Toronto, it obviously turned into five. Well, LeBron James against the Celtics in Boston has won six in a row. LeBron James against the Celtics anywhere in the playoffs has won 10 of 11. The Celtics’ best player, Al Horford — this is remarkable — has played 17 playoff games against LeBron James. He’s 1-16. Al Horford is 1-16. It’s almost impossible. It was three straight sweeps, and then last year when they took them to five. Last year’s Game 3 was the first time in 15 chances an Al Horford team has been a LeBron team, so there is that type of history. … That mental edge is real.”
— Nick Wright, FS1, May 11, 2018
All but three experts picked against the C’s again, and they were right. And there’s the bummer. The mental edge was real, but not before they pushed the greatest player of the generation to his limit. They had it. They were there. These Celtics gave us so much more than we imagined when they lost Hayward and then Irving. Yet, they always had us believing there was more.
Enough. Enough now. Bigger, better things await. But there’s something about a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts, that shreds expectations, that finds each other and takes us on a ride to the unexpected. Here’s hoping it’s not another six years before another comes along.