BOSTON – For the first time since their 2007-08 banner campaign, the Boston Celtics are the Eastern Conference regular season champions.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
Boston clinched the East’s No. 1 playoff seed Wednesday night by defeating the Milwaukee Bucks, 112-94. The C’s, at 53-29, ended up two games ahead of Cleveland and Toronto, making them the only team in the conference to lose fewer than 30 games.
It was a finish that no one anticipated, except maybe for the Celtics themselves.
“I always expected to be the No.1 team coming out of the East,” Avery Bradley confidently stated following the regular season finale. “I always expect for us to be better than what people think we’re gonna be. The type of guys we have, the coaches, I know the amount of work we put in, the work our coaching staff puts in. I always have high expectations for this team.”
High expectations or not, it’s incredible to think how far the Celtics have come during the first four seasons of their post-Big 3 rebuild.
Isaiah Thomas recalls how different the mindset was when he joined the team two and a half seasons ago. The Celtics, who were 20-31 when he was acquired at the 2015 trade deadline, appeared to be far from experiencing any type of success at that point in time.
“They definitely weren’t thinking No. 1 seed when I got here,” he recollected Wednesday night with a grin. “They were barely thinking playoffs. How fast it’s come says a lot about the direction this organization is going in and the work we put in as players and as coaches.”
The Celtics have made the Playoffs during each of the three seasons Thomas has been with the team, but things feel a lot different for him and his teammates as they head into this postseason.
During Thomas’ first half-season after being acquired, Boston went on a miraculous stretch run and made it into the Playoffs by a hair. That team was not nearly ready for postseason success, however, as it fell to Cleveland in a four-game sweep.
Last season, the Celtics improved and were able to grab the East’s fifth seed. While they managed to win a couple of contests during their first round series, it wasn’t enough to get past the experienced Atlanta Hawks, who beat them in six games.
Now, Thomas thinks his first-place squad is ready to take the next step. And that step could turn out to be a leap, depending on how well the Celtics are able to lock in and live up to their potential.
“We’re a totally different team than we were the last year and the year before,” said Thomas, whose Celtics will face the 8th-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round. “We have some new pieces, we’re playing at a higher level and we want more. In previous years we kinda just wanted to make the Playoffs to see what happened; now we want to advance, and advance as far as possible.”
Getting to this stage is a product of the Celtics’ steady, day-by-day approach. Their unwavering stability, regardless of adversity, is what Brad Stevens finds most satisfying as he looks back on the regular season success.
“I think there’s a pride in being consistent, and I told the guys that,” said Stevens. “I thought that they’d been really consistent throughout the whole year with the way that they’ve gone about their preparation, and they competed on a night-to-night basis. It’s not always easy throughout an 82-game schedule to be at your very best, but these guys are very consistent in their prep and the way they compete.”
Those 82 games, however, are meaningless at this point. Being Eastern Conference regular season champions won’t carry much meaning if the Celtics can’t back it up with a successful postseason run.
Now, the real season begins.