Celtics aim to build on successful season

BOSTON -- Trash bags brimming with personal effects -- game-worn jerseys, unworn sneakers and well-worn iPhone cables -- were scattered about an already overcrowded Boston Celtics locker room Thursday night as players hastily cleaned out their stalls after a season-ending loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.

We all knew it would end like this. Well, maybe not like this, considering the often lopsided nature of the series, including Cleveland’s 135-102 Game 5 triumph at TD Garden. Yet the end still seemed sudden.

For eight straight months, the focus for these Celtics has always been on what’s next. The next game, the next play. But there are no more possessions to be had.

Still, there were notable checkpoints the team got to savor, if only briefly, including 53 regular-season wins, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and two playoff series victories that delivered Boston to the conference finals.

By all measures, Boston’s 2016-17 season was a success. Yes, an obvious gap still exists between the Celtics and the NBA Finals-bound Cavaliers, but Boston is hopeful that gap can be narrowed with the right personnel moves this summer and continued progress from the team’s young core.

While Thursday marked the end of Boston’s season, Celtics players saw it as just the beginning of something special the team is building toward.

“After the game, obviously, we were all disappointed in the way we ended the season, especially with the losses at home,” said Avery Bradley, the longest-tenured member of the Celtics. “But we were able to take a lot of positives away. Out of all the teams in the NBA, we're one of the three teams left at this time of the year, and that was one of our goals. Obviously, our main goal was to make it to the championship and win it. But for us to be in the Eastern Conference finals after the first year of this team really being together, adding additions like Al Horford and Gerald Green -- I can go down the list of guys that we needed to learn to play with -- and for us to talk about where we wanted to be and actually make it, it's a big-time accomplishment.

“But this leaves a certain taste in our mouth, getting here and not getting to the championship. Cleveland just outplayed us in this series -- credit to those guys. But we'll be a better team next year, and we will make sure that we put ourselves in a great position to make the Eastern Conference finals and give ourselves a better chance at making the championship.”

Resting on top of the trash bag in front of Gerald Green’s locker stall was a copy of SLAM magazine with teammate Isaiah Thomas on the cover. After Thursday’s game, Thomas autographed a copy for one of his best friends on the team and inscribed it with the caption, “A real killa.”

It’s a reference to the way one of Thomas’ idols, Allen Iverson, inscribed a jersey for him at the Hall of Famer's charity gala this past summer. After receiving the prized jersey, an emotional Thomas was filmed by a friend in his Philadelphia hotel room looking up Iverson’s career stats on his phone. Marveling at how Iverson averaged 26.7 points and 6.2 assists for his career, Thomas repeatedly pleaded with himself that he had to take his game to a new level.

Then he did. Thomas was brilliant this season, averaging a career-best 28.9 points to go along with 5.9 assists per game; his scoring spiked 6.7 points per game compared to the 2015-16 season. The 5-foot-9 point guard earned his second All-Star nod and his first All-NBA berth, establishing himself as one of the league's elite offensive players.

Thomas’ legend grew to new heights this postseason. He played through unimaginable grief after losing his sister in a tragic car accident on the eve of the playoffs, and then endured multiple physical ailments before his body simply could take no more in the East finals.

After visiting with a hip specialist earlier this week, Thomas rejoined his teammates before Game 5. He led the pregame huddle in the hallway outside Boston's locker room, then rushed from the back to congratulate both teams after the final buzzer on Thursday night.

As Thomas sought out Cavaliers players, both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving -- the players most responsible for ending Boston’s season -- shared long embraces with Thomas and offered words of support and admiration.

“It's the first time I've seen him since he didn't return for the second half in Game 2,” James said. “Throughout the series, we didn't get an opportunity to actually have that moment. I know I said a few things in the media about [Thomas losing his sister], but I was happy to see him. Just give him a big hug from myself and my family.

“Just how tough and determined the guy is, and to be able to go through the situation he was going through on a day-to-day basis, still being focused and maintaining his focus for the team -- family is everything, and basketball comes second after family, and to see him perform the way he was performing throughout the playoffs under the circumstances was a treat to watch.”

Thomas’ season has already been well-chronicled, but his importance in getting Boston to this point cannot be overstated. Celtics players will wonder what might have been in the East finals with a healthy Thomas, but with the way James and Irving performed, it’s hard to imagine any team deterring Cleveland from a third straight trip to the Finals.

The progress made this season, however, should provide the Celtics with motivation to take their collective game to a new level. In a way, the Cavaliers series is their Iverson jersey -- a moment that will surely fuel this team to take the necessary steps to ensure a more competitive matchup the next time these teams cross paths.

As Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Thursday’s game, the goal in Boston is to win a title.

“I don't have any objectives other than winning the whole thing," Stevens said. "To me, that's the only goal you shoot for because, if you don't, if you put your goals lower, then you create a ceiling for your team, and I don't think that's fair to your team.

“The other thing that I'd say about this team is they're fully committed to getting better every day, and that's a good thing. That's hard to do. So those character traits are going to be important moving forward, that they continue to be passed on from the guys that are in that locker room.”

As Boston’s locker room cleared out, some of the youngest players lingered and were swarmed by reporters. Rookie Jaylen Brown, just 20 years old but fresh off defending James for a good chunk of the East finals, said he’d like to play in the summer league and build off the experiences of his first season. Marcus Smart, whose 3-point outburst in Game 3 helped Boston steal that game but otherwise struggled with his shot in this series, pledged to continue working on his stroke this summer.

Before veteran Tyler Zeller departed the locker room, he went around shaking hands with many of his teammates. Zeller’s salary for next season is non-guaranteed, making it likely he’ll be traded or released as the Celtics look to beef up their roster.

Zeller is one of three Boston players with non-guaranteed status (recent draft picks Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson are the others). The team will also have four unrestricted free agents -- Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, James Young and Gerald Green -- and one restricted free agent, Kelly Olynyk.

With some maneuvering, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge can open max cap space this summer, allowing Boston to attract some of the biggest fish on the market. The Celtics will swing for the fences by pursuing Utah Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward and hope that the progress shown this season, in addition to Hayward's prior relationship with Stevens at Butler, might be enough to woo one of the best available free agents.

Before the Celtics can make that pitch, though, they have the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft at their disposal, the result of the pingpong balls finally dancing their way earlier this month at the draft lottery (for a first-round pick received from the Nets via a previous trade). After meeting with his players Friday morning one final time before the summer, Stevens will soon dive into draft workouts and evaluations.

“I think we've got a good amount of people that will be back and obviously a strong core, with also some exciting opportunities in the draft,” Stevens said. “I mean, it's pretty cool to think about that, in three weeks, you've got the No. 1 pick in the draft. It means that I've got to go straight to work [Friday], but I'm looking forward to watching some of these prospects.”

The idea of the Celtics adding a prodigious prospect such as Washington's Markelle Fultz, Hayward and a healthy Thomas to the core that played Thursday night is mighty intriguing. With the right moves, the Celtics’ front office has a chance to establish Boston as a legitimate title threat for the foreseeable future.

This summer will go a long way toward determining how the Celtics look during that stretch.

Come watch a game at TD Garden, and you’re likely to hear an organic “Let’s go Celtics” chant break out. It might happen before the opening tip, or it might come after a big third-quarter rally. And if it’s the final home game of the postseason, it will reverberate throughout the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

Some Celtics fans are left a little ill at ease by its presence when they're essentially bidding farewell to a season. But it resonates and absolutely matters to the players and coaches, one last tribute from fans showing they appreciate everything the team gave in what amounted to 100-plus games this season.

On Thursday night, it arrived with the Celtics trailing by 32 points with 2 minutes, 44 seconds left to play.

Let’s go Celtics! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) Let’s go Celtics! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) Let’s go Celtics!

“It’s special. We have some special fans here,” said Horford, who has said the Garden's atmosphere was a big reason he joined the Celtics last summer. “They appreciated us, and as hard as it was [Thursday], I’m very grateful that they stuck with us when it wasn’t going well for our group. At the end of the day, it’s bigger than the Celtics. This city believes in this team, and they supported us, good and bad. That's what it’s all about.”

Stevens seemed genuinely touched by the gesture, just as he was when Celtics fans chanted two years ago as Boston was on the verge of being swept by the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs (after a furious late-season push just to make the postseason). For a coach who is all about the process, it’s rewarding to hear fans celebrate the journey and not just the destination.

Said Smart: “That meant a lot to us. We put on that uniform, and we throw everything down, we sacrifice not for the name on the back but the name on the front of it. The fans, at the end of that game, cheering that, it shows a lot. Because we’re out there trying to give it our all every night, we appreciate everything they do in sticking with us.”

As Celtics players hauled their trash bags out of the locker room, they left echoing a similar message: This isn’t the end -- just the start of something special.

“I definitely [believe that],” Smart said. “We’re a young team, we’ve got a lot of potential, we’ve got a lot of talent. We've still got a lot to learn. We’ve got a lot to learn. But for us to be [in the East finals], with a lot to learn, it’s huge for us. I’m excited.”

Difficult decisions will eventually loom. Both Bradley and Thomas are set to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2018 and will likely seek hefty pay raises. But there's much to do before then. This summer is about the next possession and being more competitive when the ball goes up in October. The Celtics can use the 2017-18 season to better judge who they will make the foundation of the franchise moving forward, and there’s a case to be made at the moment for both Bradley and Thomas.

The Celtics will embrace the opportunity to surround them with talent this summer while their salary cap allows them to keep building. The Celtics have made themselves an attractive destination this offseason, and players across the league will wonder if their presence could help push Boston closer to its ultimate goal of playing for a title.

Boston’s season ended Thursday. But this was just the start of where they plan to eventually end up.

“I feel like you only get better the more you play with each other. The sky's the limit for this team if we're able to keep together core guys and add some new pieces,” Bradley said. “I feel like Danny Ainge and our entire organization do a great job of putting the right guys together to help us be a contender for a championship.”