BOSTON ( Associated Press) — No one could have predicted the Celtics would reach the finals. Not in early January, when the team was playing three games under .500, with a first-year coach.
Boston came within two wins of the 18th championship in its history.
Many hopes were shattered in three consecutive defeats against the Golden State Warriors, who were crowned. But the young Boston players promise to use the pain of that loss as inspiration during the off-season.
Although they did not win the title, the Celtics have established themselves as one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference.
“The biggest message was that you have to learn and grow from it. We will have to build on this experience and see if another level can be reached,” said coach Ime Udoka after Thursday night’s loss. “We will never be the same players or coaching staff again. Let it take us into the off-season and into the next season.”
Earlier this season, when Udoka replaced Brad Stevens, the Celtics looked like a team in transition.
It looked like Stevens had taken Boston as far as possible during his eight seasons in charge. The Celtics have played in the Conference Finals three times.
They crashed in that instance, though, and it didn’t look like Stevens could take either Jason Tatum or Jaylen Brown to a higher goal.
Then came Udoka, who got it in the first year. He challenged the team and drew on the experience of experienced players such as Marcus Smart and Al Horford to create a culture based on perseverance on defense and leniency on offense.
The strategy paid off in the second half of the season, when the Celtics improved from 18–23 to close at 51–31. This was enough to give him the second seeded spot in the past.
After a sweep of Brooklyn, victory over defending champion Milwaukee and leader Miami in a straight six-game series, Boston seemed unstoppable.
In the final, the Celtics took a 2–1 lead over Golden State, but eventually succumbed to their error instincts.
Boston went 1-7 in playoff games in which it had 16 or more turnovers. He reached that undetectable figure in three of his four final losses.
Despite the bitterness of the loss, the Celtics want to take advantage of the learning.
“It’s hard to get to this point,” Tatum said. “It’s even harder to beat him and win. It’s been a long journey and a long process… We have to get to the level we want.”