Reveling in the surprise party

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Reveling in the surprise party

After six months spent watching the Celtics overcome every obstacle and bounce back from the dead more times than Kenny McCormick, its hard to believe that Saturday really marked the end of their season.

In fact, Im still not convinced that theyre done. After all, if any team can lose Game 7 of the Conference Finals and somehow live to see another day, it would be these Celtics, right? Right?!

I guess, but delusions aside, we all know the truth. It came down hard on Saturday night, as the Cs ran out of gas, LeBron casually drained a half court jumper and a fan base that barely deserves a team celebrated its second straight trip to the NBA Finals. Yeah, maybe the pains started to evaporate, but the bitterness still exists, and it will remain until the Thunder take care of business, or . . . I dont know, until forever? Then again, its hard to get bitter about anything after the month-long surprise party the Celtics threw this city.

They took us places that weve been before, but were sure wed never see again or not for a while, not with this group. They taught us important lessons about the power of team, heart, faith and resilience. Lessons that we learned in 2010, but conveniently forgot. Lessons that Im sure well eventually forget again. But for now, theyre fresh, and what this team just accomplished not only inspires us as fans, but as human beings: Screw the haters. Just work hard. Stay focused. Be you. (Also, it helps if youre a seven-footer with a deadly jumper, or 6-foot-1 with blinding speed, a beautiful mind, freakish wingspan and hands the size of frying pans.)

Man, it was an amazing run. Unfortunately, one that will be quickly overshadowed by the star-studded NBA Finals and the Celtics state of uncertainty by the draft, free agency and retirement rumors. But before we get there, before the greatness of the Celtics improbable charge to within one win of the Finals starts to fade like a photo of the McFlys, lets take one more second to breathe it all in. To go back to the moment before Game 6, before Game 7, when everything was so real, when you firmly believed in the impossible, when the Celtics were on top of the world and on the verge conquering it. Do it now, before the feelings gone forever . . .

Ahhhhhhh, thats good Celtics.

What a run.

What a team.

Now, lets turn the page.

In the coming days, weeks and months, things will get crazy around here. Have we just witnessed the end of an era? Is Ray gone? Is KG retiring? If so, does Danny step up and trade Pierce? Who knows? All I can tell you is that Im holding off on the obituaries. Ive wasted far too many words and hours eulogizing this team over the last three years. Im done with the speculation. Im done with preemptive goodbyes; with assuming we know what these guys will do next.

When Rays at the podium in New York, Miami or Chicago, Ill say goodbye. When the Celtics announce that theyve received a hand-written note from KG saying: Its been real. See you never. Ill say goodbye. When Pauls sitting between Danny and Doc on stage in Waltham, with tears in his eyes, saying thank you for everything that Bostons meant to him over the last 14 years . . . Ill say goodbye. Until then, what else can we do but sit back and see what happens. And you know what? Im actually excited to see what happens.

That alone feels like a victory.

Weve spent the last five seasons training ourselves to fear the end of the Big Three Era. As if once one, two or all three of these guys walk away, well realize that the last five years were nothing but a dream, and wake up in the same awful place that we were before they got here. With Rondo in Pierces role as tumultuous leader, surrounded by a slew of interchangeable, irrelevant parts, and Doc flailing at ways to keep it all together. The Big Three Era is what saved this team, so we just figured that the end would doom them once again. It was a natural fear. An honest fear. But personally, its one thats faded significantly.

Part of that has to do with the changing face of Boston sports in general, because lets be honest: Were all living though a major transition.

Once Kevin Faulk retires, Tom Brady will be the only one left from that first Super Bowl. David Ortiz is already the only one left from that first World Series (I know Youk was on the roster, but he was the 40th man). In the time since Vinatieris kick in New Orleans which started this run of unprecedented greatness weve said goodbye to nearly every athlete we ever loved. We watched a dynasty disappear, we watched the Idiots go their separate ways. In the process, weve learned that life goes on. That change doesnt always breed disaster. That while those may have been the good old days, that doesnt mean that all the other days have to be a nightmare. That if you truly love a team, you'll find reasons to love them. Or more, those reasons will find you.

Hell, Rob Gronkowski was 12 when the Patriots won that first Super Bowl. Avery Bradley was 11. Tyler Seguin had just turned 10. Some of our favorite athletes in this city were basically babies when this whole thing started. Do you think they know anything about Boston's decade of dominance? Or more, what it was like before that?

Times are changing. Times have already changed. Whether its in two days or two years, time is coming for the Big Three. And while thats terrifying on the surface, time has taught us that theres also reason to be optimistic.

Time has showed us that Rondo is ready to run with the torch. That Avery Bradley is more than ready to run with him. Throw in Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Chris Wilcox, Greg Stiemsma, two first round picks from an especially deep draft, not to mention all the money the Celtics have available and . . . well, I'm already way ahead of myself. But the point is that while we've spent the last six months fearing that the end of this season was going to trigger a return to the Dark Ages, in reality, even the worst case scenario doesn't look so bad. We can see the future. The foundation is in place. It's starting to make sense.

But we'll deal with that when we get there.

For now, all we can do is take another second and appreciate a great run from a great team. And know that if Saturday night truly marked the end of not only the Celtics season, but this latest era of Celtics basketball, that we were all lucky to have seen it, to be a part of it, and to have lived and died with them from the beginning to the end.

And that while no one knows what the future holds, we can all agree on one thing:

Let's go, Thunder.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Blakely: Tatum's character separates him from many of the other rookies

Blakely: Tatum's character separates him from many of the other rookies

BOSTON – With his new head coach Brad Stevens and Boston Celtics ownership and front office officials surrounding him, Jayson Tatum’s mind seemed to be somewhere else briefly.

He looked ahead, way, way ahead to the other end of the Celtics’ practice court where there were banners, lots of banners, raised high above all else in the gym.

This wasn’t just a passing glance, either.

TATUM SPEAKS

It was clear that the newest Celtic was in deep thought as he stared at the 17 banners and the one left blank, a steady reminder of what this franchise is about, past and present.

Yes, it’s a lot to soak in for anyone let alone a 19-year-old kid whose career with the Celtics can be timed on a stopwatch.

But the soft-spoken 6-foot-9 forward has been here long enough to understand that success around here is about more than playing well; it’s playing to win a championship.

And that in many ways separates Tatum from his teenage brethren who made up the majority of Thursday night’s NBA draft which included an NBA-record 17 players taken in the first round who like Tatum, were just one year removed from high school.

All come into the NBA with lots to learn, as well as goals and aspirations for this upcoming NBA season.

During an interview with CSN on Friday, I asked Tatum about what in his mind would make for a successful season.

And his answer initially was to ask me a question, “Individual or team?”

So I replied, either one.

“To get back to where they were last year and get over that hump,” he said. “Championships, chasing that number 18, that would be the ultimate success for me.”

That served as a reminder as to why despite having a handful of players under consideration at No. 3, the Celtics did the right thing in selecting Tatum.

His words may seem like the politically correct response, but take a look at the kid’s basketball resume and you’ll quickly see he is indeed about winning and doing so in whatever way possible.

After missing his first eight games at Duke with a foot injury, Tatum gradually improved as the season progressed and wound up on the all-rookie team as well as being named to the All-ACC third team.

Once the Blue Devils got to the ACC Tournament, Tatum became a different, better, more dominant player.

Indeed, Tatum led the Blue Devils to their first ACC championship since 2011 and did so in historic fashion as the Blue Devils became the first ACC school to win the conference tournament with four wins in four days.

Late in the title game against Notre Dame, Tatum put together a sequence of plays that speaks to why the Celtics were seriously considering taking him with the number one overall pick had they not been able to trade it for the No. 3 and a future first-round pick.

With the scored tied at 65, Tatum made a free throw that put Duke ahead.

Moments later, he blocked a shot and finished off the play with a lay-up that gave Duke a three-point lead.

After a Notre Dame basket, Tatum connected with a teammate for a 3-pointer that pushed Duke’s lead to four points with around a minute to play.

And then there was the 3-point play Tatum converted after getting fouled on a dunk which secured a 76-69 Duke win over the Fighting Irish.

Free throws. Blocks. Getting out in transition. Passing.

When his team needed him most, he gave whatever was required at that moment which is one of the intangibles that makes Boston feel good about his future.

“He does whatever he has to do to help you win,” said an NBA scout who said he has seen Tatum play “at least a dozen times.”

He added, “Like all of these kids coming into the league now, he has some things he has to get better at, get more consistent with. But he makes winning plays, whether it’s for himself or others. He’s a lot more unselfish a player than he’s given credit for being.”

And he’s 19 years old, which is both a blessing and a burden when you’re an NBA team executive charged with committing at least two years and millions of dollars into a young man.

Part of the process when making a draft choice, especially when it’s one of the top picks, is character evaluation.

Of the players at or near the top of the draft board, multiple league executives contacted by CSNNE.com in the past couple of weeks said this was an area where Tatum stood out in comparison to all of the top prospects.

“He’s the kind of young man you’d love whether he was a basketball player or not,” one Western Conference executive told CSNNE.com. “If you’re ranking guys on character alone in this draft, he’s your number one pick.”

Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, acknowledged the challenge of differentiating between miscues made by a teenager as being problems of concern going forward, or whether that’s a teenager making the kind of bad/questionable decisions most teens make.

“It’s dangerous to play too much into a 19-year-old kid’s behavior,” Ainge told CSN’s A. Sherrod Blakely and Kyle Draper on Friday. “But I think that, with all the things we do, from physical, emotional, mental, character, work ethic and their skills … it’s just really hard at 19. You hate to just be labeled what you are at 18.”

But in regards to Tatum specifically, Ainge added, “Jayson is a high character guy. We know he will get better because of his character and his work ethic.”

Said Tatum: “It’s a great feeling. Being part of a great organization like the Celtics; think of all the great players of the past and you can follow in their footsteps.”

And in doing so, blaze a trail of his own in the pursuit of Banner 18.

Did Suns ask Josh Jackson to cancel his Celtics workout to keep him from Boston?

Did Suns ask Josh Jackson to cancel his Celtics workout to keep him from Boston?

BOSTON – It appears there may be an answer to the mystery surrounding Josh Jackson’s decision to not work out for the Boston Celtics leading up to Thursday’s NBA draft.

While conventional wisdom tells us that such decisions are often made by the agent who in this case is former NBA player B.J. Armstrong.

Boston instead selected Jayson Tatum at No. 3 with the Phoenix Suns scooping up Jackson with the No. 4 pick.

MORE: Danny Ainge on Josh Jackson: 'He didn’t want to play for the Celtics'

During Jackson’s introductory press conference, there was a sense that it wasn’t necessarily Armstrong who strong-armed Jackson into not working out for the Celtics. But apparently, he got an assist from Suns General Manager (and ex-Celtics assistant GM) Ryan McDonough.

A reporter asked McDonough if Phoenix may have encouraged Jackson to cancel his workout with the Celtics who were flying into Sacramento, Calif. to watch Jackson workout only for it to be canceled after they had departed which as you can imagine, did not go over well with Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations.

“I’d like to consult my attorney B.J. Armstrong (Jackson’s agent),” McDonough said, smiling.

The more McDonough talked, the clearer it became that he and Armstrong were in cahoots to do all they could to get Boston to pass on Jackson at No. 3 which as McDonough mentioned, doesn’t break any rules.

“You guys all know my history with the Celtics and the respect I have for Danny Ainge and the organization,” McDonough told reporters on Friday. “But I think you guys who know me well know how competitive I am. Look, it is a competition. The Celtics were ahead of us at No. 3 and they could have selected whoever they wanted to. I think they got a very good player in Jayson Tatum, but that doesn’t mean B.J. and I and … other members of my staff couldn’t talk and try to formulate the best plan to get a player we were really high on to a place we felt he really wanted to go and would be a great fit for him.”

McDonough is right in that no rules were broken if he and Armstrong did decide to work together in an effort to get Jackson to Phoenix.

But to cancel the workout after the Celtics executives and head coach Brad Stevens had left, forcing them to spend a night on the road for a workout that Jackson’s camp probably knew wasn’t going to happen well before the Celtics contingent boarded for Sacramento … not cool.

Here are words I thought I would never say … the Ball clan got it right.

They told Boston from the jump that Lonzo Ball wasn’t going to work out for them, so the Celtics knew he didn’t want to be a Celtic from the very beginning.

Jackson’s actions said the same, but his words kept hope alive that he would work out or at the very least, talk to the Celtics organization – neither of which happened.

He kept referring to the fact that he didn’t think Boston was interested in him when they had the number one pick (that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if they asked him to work out for them; otherwise, what’s the point from the Celtics'  perspective of asking to work out a guy they had no interest in drafting?)

After they traded down to the number 3 pick, a deal that was cemented last weekend, Jackson said there wasn’t time to do a workout for Boston.

The draft was nearly a week away and he didn’t have time to work out for a team that had the third pick overall knowing that the top two picks (Markelle Fultz at No. 1 and Lonzo Ball at No. 2) were essentially accounted for?

“If I could have, I probably would have worked out for them,” Jackson said (with a straight face). “But I think everything worked out for the best.”

Yup.

Boston will once again be among the better teams in the East and will contend for the best record like they achieved this past season before their season ended in the Conference finals to Cleveland. 

Jackson will spend his rookie season playing a lot of minutes with a Suns team that probably won’t win as many games as he did a year ago at Kansas (33).

Enjoy.