The Boston Celtics enjoyed their strongest NBA season since the departures of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but their campaign was ended in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Since the Celtics opted to cash in on their veterans – who have since retired – Brad Stevens and general manager Danny Ainge have been tasked with a rebuild operation.
In the 2015-16 term , Boston displayed promise, but were defeated in the first round of the playoffs by the Atlanta Hawks.
The club attempted to respond by luring Kevin Durant to the TD Garden, but not even the assistance of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady could prevent the 2014 MVP from joining the Golden State Warriors.
However, they were able to land the signature of Al Horford, who was part of the Atlanta side that dispatched them from the post-season.
His arrival prompted the exits of Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger, and the 30-year-old brought a high level of play to the position as well as adding experience to a youthful outfit.
The Celtics used the third pick – acquired from the Brooklyn Nets – in the 2016 Draft to select Jaylen Brown and he had flashes in his rookie year.
However, the star of the team was still Isaiah Thomas, who continued to excel at point guard, driving his side – almost single-handedly at times – into the number one seed and the post-season.
For the first time since 2012 and under the tenure of Stevens, the Celtics won a playoff series. They defeated the Chicago Bulls and then the Washington Wizards, only to be undone by the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The term was a step forward for the club and there is no reason why they shouldn’t improve in the next campaign.
The Celtics made a winning start to the campaign, defeating the Nets in their opener at the TD Garden. Thomas notched 25 points to guide his side to a five-point victory, but the same level of performance was not enough to overcome the Bulls in their road opener.
An Avery Bradley 31-pointer got them back on track against the Charlotte Hornets to end the first month of the season, although problems mounted at the start of November.
Stevens’ men dropped three games on the bounce, losing a close contest to the Cavs before being hammered by the Washington Wizards on the road.
Boston fought back with six wins in their next eight matches, including three victories on the bounce away from the TD Garden. However, quality outfits continued to get the better of them, suffering losses at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
A 37-point display from Thomas delivered a win over the Philadelphia 76ers in early December. However, their momentum was stymied by defeats to the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Spurs.
Six wins in seven ensured that the Celtics bounced back, including an overtime triumph over the Memphis Grizzlies. The Cavs loomed large to inflict their second defeat of the term on Stevens’ side, but Boston ended 2016 on a high note as Thomas scored 52 points to defeat the Miami Heat.
The Celtics enjoyed a strong start to the new year, producing a fine offensive performance to unlock the Utah Jazz’s stoic defense.
The club won six of their opening seven matches of 2017, including back-to-back victories over the Hawks and the Wizards as Thomas operated at the peak of his powers.
Even in defeats the point guard impressed, scoring 41 and 39 points respectively in losses to the Knicks and the Portland Trail Blazers. However, those displays became to come in winning efforts against the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons and the Rockets.
Encouragingly the Celtics were beginning to beat quality outfits, with Thomas receiving support from Horford and Marcus Smart to overcome the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Stevens’ men entered the All-Star break with momentum having won four games on the bounce, and although it took a slight hit in the immediate aftermath, March would prove to be their best month of the term.
A victory over the Cavaliers kick-started their surge for the number one seed and another stellar performance allowed the Celtics to overcome the Warriors on the road. A run of eight wins in 10 allowed the Celtics to take charge of the number one seed due to the Cavs’ slump.
After suffering defeats to the Cavs and the Hawks in April, but they entered the playoffs with momentum by winning their final three games.
Boston secured the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and were drawn against the eighth-ranked Bulls. However, they were rocked in the first two games of the first round, with Jimmy Butler Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo putting them on the back foot.
However, the Celtics found their form on the road as Horford and Thomas came to the fore, while Bradley got them over the line and into the Conference Semi-Finals.
The Wizards were the next challenge for Stevens’ men, but Thomas came out firing to put his team into a 2-0 lead.
Thomas put in a brilliant performance in game two, scoring 53 points and it seemed the series would be sealed with ease, but Bradley Beal and John Wall levelled the scoreline at the Verizon Center.
Bradley and Smart led the response at the TD Garden to restore their side’s advantage, but the Wizards edge out a one-point win to send the semis into decider. Thomas rose to the occasion in game seven to power through an injury to deliver the Celtics their Conference Finals berth.
However, their journey was to end there as it was clear from the off the Cavaliers had too much quality for Stevens’ men to contend with. Cleveland won game one with ease, while game two was a non-event with LeBron James and company dominating from start to finish.
Thomas was then ruled out for the series due to his injury woes, but the Celtics rallied to snatch a game back on the road through Smart and Horford.
Boston held a lead in game four for the majority of the contest, only for the Cavs to up the ante in the fourth to crush their hopes before easing past them in game five to secure the series.
The Celtics will be watching the dysfunction at the Cavs in the off-season with great interest as Kyrie Irving appears to be on the verge of leaving their rivals. He might be sent out of the Eastern Conference, which would weaken Tyronn Lue’s men, despite the presence of LeBron.
Boston have already strengthened their team, even though they could not strike a deal to sign Paul George from the Indiana Pacers. Gordon Hayward arrived during free agency to link up with his former college coach Stevens at the TD Garden. He will ease the point-scoring strain on Thomas as well providing a stronger defensive presence than Jae Crowder.
Bradley was traded away by the club to the Pistons to make cap room for Hayward, but the rise of Jaylen Brown and Smart should atone for his loss. Perhaps the most exciting move was the decision to trade away the first selection in the 2017 Draft – again gained from the Garnett and Pierce trades with the Nets in 2013.
Ainge dropped down to three in a trade with the 76ers and acquired another first-rounder, while selecting Jayson Tatum in their new spot. He has already impressed during the Summer League and has intriguing odds with Bovada sportsbook of +500 to be Rookie of the Year.
Thomas will be his side’s key man again and for them to take the next step he will have to continue his form – therfore his MVP odds of +4000 with SunBets may be worth a small punt.
However, the better bet is with SportingBet and their +280 odds for the Celtics to win the Eastern Conference. The same bookmaker offers odds of +1400 for the NBA Championship, but upsetting the Warriors might be a step too far for them next term.
Boston Celtics To Win The Eastern Conference
Jayson Tatum To Be Rookie Of The Year