Celtics' bright future eases sting of playoff defeat

BOSTON -- Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas arrived at the interview podium Thursday night with red, irritated eyes, evidence of the emotions that poured out of him in the aftermath of Thursday's 104-92 loss in Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks, ending Boston's season in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Hawks smothered Thomas for much of the series, but particularly over the final two games. Sending extra bodies his way whenever he tried to attack, Thomas needed 24 shots to score 25 points during Thursday's loss.

Inside the Celtics' locker room, Thomas sat with a towel over his head after the game. Teammates and coaches approached to console him. He could have let teammate Jae Crowder handle the podium duties alone, but he elected to join him.

"It’s very emotional for me, just because we gave it all," said Thomas. "We never put our head down. This group of guys is something special. I gave it my all, so that’s why it hurts that much more. I wish I could’ve done more, but it just happened to be like that."

It might not have been possible for Thomas to do more. The Hawks and their ferocious defense made the decision late in the series to trap Thomas and force his teammates to beat them. Boston, never a particularly good shooting team even before the injury bug nibbled on their depth, struggled to consistently make Atlanta pay for all the attention on Thomas.

While there is much to celebrate about Boston's season, the final two games were an obvious reminder that the Celtics need more individual talent. Coach Brad Stevens got a lot out of the roster and this team succeeded in large part because of the chemistry and continuity of a familiar core.

Thomas is hoping the team will have a chance to build on this season, but understands that things could look very different next season.

"One thing I do know, I ride with these guys until the wheels fall off," Thomas said. "This is a special group. Hopefully, we can all stick together and have something special in the future. I love those guys in the locker room. Hopefully, we can keep this together."

The Celtics limped to the finish line of the season battered and bruised. Thomas dealt with ankle and wrist issues late in the year while Crowder endured a high ankle sprain in March that might have been the biggest culprit in Boston being unable to snag home-court advantage in the playoffs.

These Celtics were not long for the postseason, though it's fair to wonder if some better health -- Avery Bradley (hamstring) and Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) were tough losses early in the Hawks series -- might have prolonged Boston's stay. Alas, the most important date in May was always going to be the 17th.

That's the night the pingpong balls will dance in New York City and the draft slot of the Brooklyn Nets' pick -- the crown jewel of the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce blockbuster from July 2013 -- will be determined. Boston's lack of lottery luck is well documented, but one night of good fortune could very much help this team emerge as a long-term contender.

The Celtics own eight picks in June’s draft, including three first-round picks (Nos. 16 and 23 are locked in, while Brooklyn's pick will be determined by the lottery). Boston has much of its roster under control for next season, including Thomas, Bradley, Crowder and Jonas Jerebko on very cap-friendly contracts. Others like Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk remain on low-money rookie deals. The copious amount of space remaining can be used to lure additional talent when free agency opens in July.

"I think the biggest thing is, it’s tough right now because of the emotions of the moment and losing the series and the way that we lost in the last games, in the last two games," said Stevens. "But I think that, from a big-picture perspective, I feel good about our progress. We have great opportunities to move forward with our future flexibility."

Added Stevens: "You go from 40 [wins] -- under .500 and barely making the playoffs and kind of eking in at the end by winning six straight [last season] -- to being in the mix for being a top-4 seed in the East. And so, yes, there’s progress. But, hey, people have told me all along there’s two really tough tasks, right? One is getting to be a very good competitive team at a top-10-15 level on offense and defense and give yourself a chance to be in the discussion we’re in now. And that’s been a path in the last three years to get there."

Thomas perked up when asked about luring free agents to Boston. He's ready to go on the recruiting trail this summer with hopes of bringing in the sort of star players who can help him shoulder the load. His sales pitch?

"Our fans are amazing. This city is a sports town. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else," Thomas said. "When you do get to experience what Boston Celtics basketball is like, it’s like no other organization. As long as we keep getting better, hopefully guys will start to choose Boston as a city they want to play in."

Thomas is looking for the sort of help that can ensure that if he ever arrives at a podium with red eyes again, it'll be from crying tears of joy.