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Boston Celtics fall short, but are poised to take advantage of good problems

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Tatum says Celtics left it all on the floor (0:44)

Jayson Tatum explains why the Celtics have nothing to hang their heads about after falling in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. (0:44)

BOSTON -- Go ahead. Comfort the Boston Celtics in soothing, dulcet tones that there's no shame in losing to LeBron James: the greatest player in the game, a mammoth icon who played 48 minutes and demoralized his old familiar playoff foe in every possible way imaginable. Dagger 3-pointers, vicious defense, superb court vision and, above all, a Hall of Fame swagger that nobody else on the court -- or perhaps this earth -- could begin to duplicate.

Feel free to remind the Celtics that nobody -- absolutely nobody -- expected them to advance to the Eastern Conference finals with a roster decimated from the outset because of crippling injuries to Gordon Hayward, then Kyrie Irving, then Daniel Theis, then Shane Larkin.

It's all true, of course, but don't expect them to endorse a lick of it. The Sons of Brad Stevens, even in the wake of a crushing Game 7 loss in their own building, the only one of its so-called improbable playoff run, stomped out of TD Garden believing this was a game they should have won, even after shooting 34 percent for the game and an unfathomable 17.9 percent (7-of-39) from behind the 3-point line.

They will wake up Monday morning fervently arguing that they belonged on this grand stage, not as underdogs but as legitimate contenders.

"None of this was ever improbable to us,'' Marcus Morris said. "Like I said from the beginning, once I saw the draw for the playoffs, I expected us to be in the position we were in right now.

"But we take our hats off to Cleveland. They came back from a 2-0 [series] deficit. They had LeBron. We missed shots we normally make.''

Oh, those missed shots. Where do we start? There were so, so many of them. There was Terry Rozier, who missed 12 of his 14 offerings, including an 0-for-10 goose egg from behind the 3-point line. Just two nights earlier in Cleveland, in a far more hostile environment, Rozier torched the Cleveland Cavaliers for 28 points on 6-of-10 shooting from behind the 3-point arc.

"It's a bitter pill to swallow,'' said a visibly shaken Rozier in the quiet of the losers' locker room.

Later, when approached by ESPN in the hallway, Rozier was asked about the notion that this game was too overwhelming for a roster that averages 25.6 years old, which would have been the second youngest since the shot clock era had it advanced to the NBA Finals.

"Nothing to do with that,'' Rozier said. "I would definitely take all those shots over again. My confidence is still with me. It will carry over to the summer and to next season, too.''

One of the more endearing qualities of this Celtics team was when one player faltered, another stepped up to cover his tracks. That symbiotic relationship did not carry over to Game 7. Boston's backcourt trio of Rozier, 21-year-old Jaylen Brown (5-of-18) and Marcus Smart (1-of-10) combined to shoot a stunning 19 percent from the floor, and a numbing 11 percent (3-of-26) from the 3-point line.

The Celtics will have all summer to chew on criticism that they played "young" in this Game 7, that the enormity of the moment caused them to press, force low-percentage jumpers, make hurried decisions. The numbers suggest there's an abundance of truth to that -- with the exception of 20-year-old Jayson Tatum, who two years ago was battling St. Louis University (Missouri) High School for a boys' state championship and Sunday night was emphatically dunking on James, his childhood idol.

Tatum checked out with 24 points and seven rebounds, adding yet another page to a burgeoning dossier that just might suggest he was the best rookie in the talented 2017 draft class after all.

"I love everything about the kid,'' declared James. "The way he plays the game, his demeanor, where he comes from. I know his parents. He's just built for stardom.''

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1:07

Tatum on dunk on LeBron: 'Had to get him back'

Jayson Tatum reacts to his posterizing dunk on LeBron James and reflects on the moment he shared with James after the game.

But Tatum's statement game wasn't enough, nor was Al Horford's resurgence as the redoubtable facilitator on both ends of the floor, the Yoda to the young Celtics' Jedis.

Much of that had to do with the Cavs' stout defense, and a career game from former Celtic Jeff Green. And, of course, LeBron's fingerprints were everywhere, especially midway through the second quarter, when Boston frittered away its hard-earned 35-23 advantage with 8:52 left in the period via a flurry of errant shots, turnovers and missed free throws. James made them pay dearly for each miscue, either with a savvy pass or an aggressive offensive foray into the paint. By halftime, that 12-point advantage had been whittled down to four points. It was an opportunity squandered, and everyone in the raucous Garden knew it.

"We kinda went away from what we did in the first quarter," Rozier admitted. "When we do that, we always pay for it.''

"We were in really good shape -- really good shape,'' lamented Boston coach Brad Stevens, "and we just couldn't extend the lead. I thought that probably added to the shooting the rest of the game.''

Sometimes, when the shots don't fall, there's a tendency to attempt to recoup those points all at once, especially if you are young and still learning. Rozier was guilty of it. Brown, too.

"At points you could say the [young guys] played young,'' Morris conceded. "Cleveland has veteran guys, including the best guy, over there. But I love how we never stopped fighting.''

In many ways, Smart, who has long been identified as the heart and soul of this ballclub, personified Boston's struggles. His fearless belief in himself is both his biggest strength and most glaring weakness. He is a gritty defender, an underrated passer, a hustler and an agitator -- but not a shooter. And yet, he keeps on taking them. Sooner or later, it was bound to catch up with him and his team. For all his shooting woes, Smart still absorbed two huge charges on LeBron, dished out seven assists and had zero turnovers in 30 minutes of play. He was a +1 for the game, a typical night on the parquet for Boston's mercurial leader.

"This one was difficult,'' Smart said. "Very hard. I left it all on the court, but my [performance] was unacceptable. I missed free throws. I missed shots I normally make. I try not to make excuses but my thumb is messed up. My whole right hand is a problem.''

Sound familiar? A banged-up player whose shot comes and goes, whose defense is his calling card. That was the 2017-18 Boston Celtics in a nutshell.

Veteran Aron Baynes, who made his presence felt in this game without taking a shot, was asked if youth was the ultimate downfall of this team.

"I can't say that,'' Baynes answered. "Seventy percent of those shots we missed, they were great shots.''

Baynes said his teammates will build on this disappointment in ways they don't even understand yet.

"It's a great learning tool,'' he said. "My first year in league we [the San Antonio Spurs] lost in the Finals, and we came back with a different drive, a different level of energy."

Did he share this parcel of wisdom with the team on Sunday night?

"Not yet,'' Baynes said. "It's a bit soon.''

No need to review the thrilling series win over the Milwaukee Bucks and the dismantling of the favored Philadelphia 76ers. No need to pat them on the back for their resiliency and their ability to perfect the "next man up" mantra. These Boston Celtics take no pleasure in any of it. They planned on going all the way -- even if you didn't think they would.