BOSTON – The final horn sounded and for the second time in three years, the Celtics faithful saw their team’s season end at the TD Garden at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But this was different.
Two years ago, the Celtics were just lucky to be on the floor with the Cavaliers who had no problem sweeping them out of the postseason.
This time, things were different.
Cleveland had their way with Boston, but had to work harder – much harder – than they did a couple years ago.
And that more than anything else, is clear and undeniable evidence that the Celtics are on the come-up even after their season ended with a 135-102 Game 5 drubbing.
They lost the series four games to one, most of which were played without their most dynamic player, Isaiah Thomas (hip) who came into the postseason as the top scorer in the Eastern Conference.
Boston did lots of good things in this series, but it served as a reminder that the Celtics aren’t quite ready for the bright lights and big-game performances needed consistently this time of the year to win.
LeBron James’ reign in the NBA is far from over, but it’s clear as day that the Celtics are positioning themselves to be one of the favorites to eventually unseat the Cavs.
Boston’s regular season record (53-29) was the best in Brad Stevens’ four years on the job, good enough to go into the postseason with the top overall seed.
But as we saw time after time after time, regular season records mean little if it comes void of the superstars most of the elite teams have in waves.
The Cleveland Cavaliers did as expected in eliminating the Boston Celtics and in doing so, move on to the NBA Finals for the third straight season where they will face a well-rested Golden State Warriors club.
Celtics Nation serenaded the players as they walked off the floor who were disappointed but should have walked off with heads held high.
Because in the end, they gave the fans exactly what they wanted – everything they had to offer.
And for most of this season, it was good enough to not just compete but win a lot of games that few outside of the Celtics’ payroll anticipated would result in a victory.
In Cleveland, the Celtics ran into the ultimate buzzsaw.
Not only were the defending champions playing their best basketball in the playoffs, but they were healthy both mentally and physically – something they could not lay claim to during several stretches during the regular season.
Meanwhile, the Celtics dealt with injuries throughout the season.
There were the usual bumps and bruises.
And then there was Isaiah Thomas’ right hip injury which he played through after re-aggravating it at the end of Boston’s second-round series with Washington.
But it proved to be too much for him to deal with which led to the Celtics shutting him down for the playoffs at halftime of Game 2.
Boston managed to win Game 3 and had opportunities galore to get Game 4 only to come up short in large part because they didn’t have an offensive closer – a player who could fill the void left by Thomas’ absence.
In Game 5, the Cavaliers managed to find areas to exploit most of the first half as they pulled ahead to dominate the action.
And the Celtics, a team that without Thomas relies heavily on ball movement, timely cuts to the basket and the need to knock down open shots, simply failed to once again take advantage of the opportunities – and there weren’t many – the Cavs afforded them.
Game 5 had the look and feel of Games 1 and 2, when Cleveland came into the TD Garden and had their way with the Celtics with a pair of wins by a combined 57 points.
Cleveland began Thursday night’s game with a 28-12 run, capped off by an emphatic dunk by LeBron James who blew past Terry Rozier.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens called his second time-out of the quarter, a clear sign of his concern – and justifiably so – that the game could quickly get out of hand as was the case in the first two games.
And with more than two minutes to play, the Cavaliers had a commanding 36-26 lead after a Kyrie Irving lay-up in which he was fouled by Rozier.
Cleveland continued to pull away in the second and third quarters as Boston’s defense showed little resistance.
And when they did, the Cavs just went around and over them, resulting in an overwhelming performance that Boston had no answer for, home court or not.
It was another beatdown at the hands of the Cavs, but there was a different vibe following this one.
Two years ago, there was no telling what the loss meant to a Celtics team that at the time, was lucky to be in the playoffs.
This season, there was no luck at all in Boston being one of the last four teams with games on the docket.
They deserved to have this opportunity, one that’s likely to come around a few more times in the near future as Boston continues to strengthen a young core with more talent and experiences like what they went through during this Conference Finals against Cleveland.