This is not to take anything away from their otherwise incredible season, but the Boston Celtics choked.
The Celtics defied and exceeded expectations despite losing their two best players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — to injury. No one expected them to reach the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals with this squad, a notion backed by Vegas.
But convincing wins in Games 1 and 2 should have adjusted those expectations. The same goes for a Game 5 win that left them only needing to split the final two games. And when Boston held a 12-point lead midway through the second quarter at home in Game 7, the expectation should have been that this team was heading to the NBA Finals.
And then they choked.
A historically woeful shooting performance did them in. Had the Celtics shot just 10-for-39 from 3-point land, it would have been enough to win. Had the Celtics kept the pedal to the metal in the second quarter, the Cavs almost certainly would have wilted. Had Jayson Tatum demanded the ball more in the second half, that probably would have been enough to win.
None of that happened, though.
Saying the Celtics choked in Game 7 takes nothing away from their other accomplishments. If anything, it reinforces them. They did enough to make everyone believe they should have won the Eastern Conference. That’s impressive. But when everyone tells you how great you are for four or five weeks, you can’t come up woefully short in the biggest game of the season.
Boston’s future still is bright despite this letdown. All of these things can be true.
Here are a few other things we learned from that Game 7 loss.
— Kyrie Irving (obviously) would have made a world of difference.
Yes, the Celtics are Kyrie Irving’s team. No, they shouldn’t trade him this offseason. This should be painfully obvious after the Celtics’ gag, and to suggest otherwise borders on embarrassing. But there were multiple instances in Game 7 alone when the Celtics would have loved to have Irving on the court.
Maybe he wouldn’t be impervious to the puzzlingly dreadful and seemingly contagious shooting bug that felled Boston in Game 7. Would you be willing to bet against him, though? Irving’s track record speaks for itself, and there were several times Sunday night where the Celtics could have used his heroics.
Irving’s ability to create off the dribble and get to the rim also would have been an asset. Boston’s offense got stagnant at times, which was only compounded by the sheer inability to make a jump shot. Irving could have demanded the ball, put his head down and got to the rim, which almost certainly would have stemmed the second-half tide.
— No, Game 7 wasn’t LeBron James’ greatest performance.
LeBron James’ historically great postseason has been extended by at least four games, but he likely would be checking out real estate in Philly, Los Angeles or Houston had Boston actually made some shots in the second half. He was by far the best player on the court Sunday, and hindsight will do his performance wonders. But again, it’s OK for more than one thing to be true: LeBron was a cold-blooded killer but also got help from the Celtics’ ineptitude and his supporting cast.
— The Celtics will and should be favored to win the East next season.
As long as everyone is healthy, the Celtics should be in the NBA Finals a year from now. It doesn’t matter where LeBron goes, even if he ends up in Philly. Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart (if he returns) and Marcus Morris are very, very good role players. But put them in spots where they need to carry games, and there’s obviously a ceiling. With Irving and Gordon Hayward back in the mix alongside Al Horford and another year under the belts of Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the pieces should fall into place very nicely for the Celtics. Once everyone finds their role and settles in — with Brad Stevens pushing the buttons — the sky is the limit for the Celtics, who not only should be favored to win the East, but also should be on the short list of teams who can win it all.