BOSTON — The Celtics weren’t supposed to be anywhere near the NBA Finals when Gordon Hayward was lost for the season with a horrific leg injury just minutes into the opening game.
And when Kyrie Irving was shut down for the rest of the campaign in April, few expected the Celtics would enter TD Garden on Sunday night needing only one win to dethrone LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers as Eastern Conference champions.
The C’s ultimately came up just short, losing 87-79 despite having a 12-point lead in the second quarter.
Time and time again, this Celtics team defied the odds and overcame just about every obstacle thrown its way, whether it was losing key players for long periods due to injuries, thrusting rookies and second-year guys into important roles, or facing more experienced and/or arguably more talented teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The toughness and heart displayed by this Celtics team will give it a special place in the minds of Boston fans, despite the heartbreaking finish to the postseason.
“I’m super proud of this group. I’d go to war with these guys any day of the week,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “We fought every game. Came down to one, fell short, but no reason to hang our heads. We had a great season. Trying to take down one of the best players of all time, and fell a little bit short. That’s always going to be in the back of my mind. But we’ll get it back next year.”
Despite shooting 34.1 percent and an even worse 17.9 percent from 3-point range, the Celtics still could have won Game 7 with just a few more baskets. They had a 72-71 lead with 6:04 left in the fourth quarter, but hit just two of their final 13 shots.
“I think at the end of the day, again, this team was the only team that I’ve been around at this level that I thought we might shoot 36 percent and win the game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But we just had one of those nights.”
The fact that anyone would believe the Celtics could shoot so poorly and still win an important game is a testament to the resiliency they showed all season.
When the Celtics fell to 0-2, a season that began with so much promise easily could’ve snowballed into a disaster. But the Celtics then won 16 straight games, including a thriller against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and never looked back.
The Celtics had 12 wins when the opponent’s win probability was 88.5 percent or above, per 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Sean Grande. They had a few of these wild victories in the playoffs, too, including a 22-point comeback to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 2 of the second round, as well as an 11-point comeback to defeat the Cavs in Game 2 of the conference finals.
The Celtics don’t celebrate Eastern Conference titles with banners in the rafters, and they certainly don’t put up banners for conference finalists.
But when Celtics fans look back on this magical ride of a regular season and playoffs, this 2017-18 squad likely will be remembered quite fondly, perhaps as much as any other non-championship team in franchise history.
“The odds were against us this whole season, and we’ve always been the underdogs,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “Everybody always counted us out, so I’m proud of these guys. I’m proud of this team, the way we fought.”