On the brink, Celtics won't stop fighting

BOSTON -- You're going to miss this team when its season is over.

The Boston Celtics' season could end as early as Sunday, though the Cleveland Cavaliers would be foolish to show up to TD Garden expecting a breezy sweep. If this Eastern Conference first-round series has confirmed anything, it's that these scrappy Celtics will go down swinging.

Boston proved it again during Thursday's 103-95 Game 3 loss to the Cavaliers. The Celtics clearly don't have the individual talent Cleveland has, but they simply never stopped competing. They made the Garden roar like we haven't heard since the heyday of the Big Three era and gave hope for an even brighter future.

But right now, talent is undefeated.

Boston is staring at a 3-0 deficit, the same deficit no team in NBA history has ever come back from. Celtics coach Brad Stevens will implore his team to simply focus on the next game, and supremely optimistic (or sarcastic) Boston fans will run around quoting Kevin Millar ("Don't let us win tonight!").

Alas, the question now is not if but when the Celtics' season will end.

If you're a late arrival to the 2014-15 Celtics campaign, take a minute on Sunday to savor this team. They've defied all expectations -- pegged by Vegas to win 27 games -- while enduring a turnstile roster (11 trades, 41 total roster players). After surging their way into the postseason by winning eight of their last nine to obtain the seventh seed, the Celtics have played three competitive games against the team favored to win the Eastern Conference.

On Thursday night, Boston's best individual player, Isaiah Thomas, had an uncharacteristically quiet game (5 points on 2-of-9 shooting over 21 minutes), but Boston still found a way to hang around while riding the grit of guys such as Jae Crowder (16 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks), Evan Turner (19 points, 8 assists, 2 steals) and Jonas Jerebko (4 points, 7 rebounds, 1 notable, hard foul).

It was an offensive rebound -- the type that has killed Boston throughout this series -- that did the Celtics in again. After Boston pulled within three with under three minutes to play, Tristan Thompson tracked down his fourth offensive rebound of the night, and Kyrie Irving kicked to an open Kevin Love for a backbreaking 3-pointer that had the Cavs up six with 2:13 to play.

"We just battled," Crowder said. "They made runs, we made runs, we responded well ... and I think that shows the growth in our group."

Growth. Progress. These are the buzzwords of the 2014-15 season for the Celtics. Although Boston clearly lacks the pure talent of Cleveland, this team genuinely believes it is capable of hanging with the Cavaliers. It's why Celtics players have been so frustrated about being unable to get over the hump in these games.

Near the end of his postgame press conference, Stevens was asked what separates the Cavaliers and Celtics in this series, and he acknowledged a talent gap.

"Well, we’ll see at the end of the series, right? And I’ll be better able to say it," Stevens said. "I want to get ready to go and want to make sure that we play as well as possible for however many games we have left.

"But obviously, No. 23 [LeBron James] is one. And obviously, they’ve got other very talented guys, right? I thought Love made huge shots, I thought Irving made huge shots, and then J.R. Smith -- he went to a different level than he’s been in the first two games. So I think all of those guys, and then you add in the Thompsons and the rebounders and all those guys, so you’ve got all these guys that are good players around the super superstars, and they just become better when they’re around them. And that’s what the great ones do -- they make everybody else rise up."

The Celtics have impressed their opposition with their fight. LeBron James has complimented Stevens on his preparation and coaching, essentially a nod to what Stevens has done with a young roster devoid of superstar talent.

Said Cavaliers coach David Blatt: "This was not an easy game, and honestly, none of the three games have been easy. Coach Stevens is doing a terrific job with his team, and they are competing and playing us tough as it should be in the playoffs."

Few expected the Celtics to put up as much resistance as they have. Sure, some predicted Boston might steal a game -- and they still might -- but these Celtics were supposed to be happy just to be here.

They're not satisfied with losing. As Jared Sullinger opined after Boston's Game 2 defeat: "We don’t like to do moral victories around here. We want to win."

The Celtics need to win Sunday to keep their season alive. If James and his teammates play to their abilities, they can prevent this series from going back to Cleveland. So take a moment to savor everything about the 2014-15 Celtics.

Boston spit in the eye of the typical rebuilding process and elected to chase a postseason berth. The Celtics could have downshifted and hoped to land a seemingly less imposing Hawks team in Round 1 but instead kept fighting and demanded a matchup with the Cavaliers.

Some said they'd be nothing more than a speed bump for Cleveland. But they've made the Cavaliers work each game. With the season on the brink, Boston won't change what it has done to get to this point.

"You have a game Sunday," Stevens said. "You prepare for the game and play to the best of your ability."

That might not be enough against the Cavaliers, but this team has been insanely fun to watch this season. Savor every time Crowder tries to pry the ball from an opposing big's hands.

Enjoy every time rookie Marcus Smart plays tight defense on an opposing guard (or takes on the challenge of guarding James).

Relish every Isaiah Thomas drive and Jonas Jerebko sweeping skyhook.

Appreciate the way Jared Sullinger has returned from what was thought to be a season-ending foot injury to give Boston quality postseason minutes.

Bask in the way Stevens coaches relentlessly until the final buzzer.

Revel in the way these Celtics compete each time they are on the floor. You're going to miss this team when the season is over.