The Boston Celtics made their first playoff appearance of the Brad Stevens-era and they were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but most fans didn’t seem too upset with the result.
Just making the postseason was a big deal. Boston was 16-30 at one point during the season but things started to look up when they won four of five heading into the All-Star break, including a win over the Eastern Conference leading Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics came out of the break with a new player – Isaiah Thomas – and their hot play continued as they went 20-11 after the trade deadline to force their way into the seventh seed.
A lot got made about this young, quick rising Celtics team just being competitive with a powerhouse like the Cleveland Cavaliers. While some people will tell you that moral victories never matter in sports, a good number of fans across New England seemed to be taking the mindset that this “competitive sweep” was a good thing for the team. This feeling seemed to carry over into the locker room, as Thomas described his first NBA playoff experience in The Players’ Tribune:
Our season didn’t end the way we wanted it to, believe me. But a lot of good came from that series. It was an experience that our team needed, because in three of the four games, we had a chance to win in the final minutes.
The moral victory thing isn’t looking too hot anymore after back-to-back ass whoopings and it could be fair to ask if the Celtics are even significantly better than they were back in 2015. Glancing at everything quickly, the easy answer is yes. 53-29 is a huge improvement over 40-42, the top seed is better than the seventh and making the Eastern Conference Finals is clearly an upgrade over a first round loss.
But when you look a little deeper, you’ll be shocked to learn they might not be that much better after all.
The 2014-15 Celtics went 24-12 over their final 36 games, which is close to half a season and a winning percentage of 66.7%. While that isn’t a full season, it’s still a pretty big sample and also showed that the team was truly cooking heading into the playoffs. Boston posed a winning percentage of 64.6% this season as they won up with the top seed in the east but the ultimate end result seems to the same thing; the Celtics are a good team but still not that close to the Cavaliers.
In all honestly, this year’s team would probably beat the 2015 team head-to-head but it would probably be a competitive battle if the two teams met in a seven game series. At the very least, the gap between these two Celtic teams is closer than the gap between any Brad Stevens led team and the LeBron James led Cleveland teams that have dominated them.
The future is still very bright and an embarrassing sweep wouldn’t change that at all. Boston has the number one overall pick in next month’s NBA Draft and will also be able to offer a max contract to a player like Gordon Hayward, a 27-year old All-Star who is just entering his prime. Ainge will have this team in position to win it all, just not right now.