A swan song to build on for Celtics

I've been chronicling Boston sports for the better part of 34 years and assumed I'd seen just about everything, but something unfolded Sunday afternoon that I never imagined possible: a standing ovation for a team that got swept in the first round of the playoffs.

You know what? The Boston Celtics deserved it.

Long after the buzzer sounded on a Game 4 rumble that enabled the Cleveland Cavaliers to advance (and simultaneously jam the breaks on this surprising Boston season), the appreciative capacity Garden crowd continued its resolute chant of "Let's go Celtics!"

We are all about winning around here. We don't frequent Causeway Street for moral victories or feel-good underdog narratives. It's championship or bust; has been, always will be, for the Patriots, the Bruins, the Red Sox, the Celtics.

But this group of shamrocked upstarts have temporarily altered the thinking by exhibiting the resiliency and grit their fan base prides itself on. Give an honest effort, demonstrate a little edge and sprinkle in an old-fashioned forearm shiver and you'll have Boston fans at hello.

There's a reason why Jim Loscutoff and Terry O'Reilly have hallowed spots in the Garden rafters, and why Kendrick Perkins once was revered every bit as much as his more celebrated counterparts from the 2008 championship team (more on that later).

Everyone knew the Cavaliers and their transcendent star, LeBron James, were more talented, better seasoned and built to make a deep playoff run. The Celtics' mission was to defy the perception they would merely be road kill for Cleveland en route to a "real" test against the Chicago Bulls.

Boston attempted to offset its inexperience, which cropped up at the most inopportune moments, by resorting to a grinding, physical style that required bumping and banging and, when necessary, fouling.

While such tactics did nothing to deter LeBron -- "I'm OK with physical play,'' he said with a grin in the aftermath -- it did seem to distract some of his teammates.

J.R. Smith was ejected for a shot that leveled Jae Crowder and required the Celtics forward to be helped off the court by his teammates with an injured knee, jawing at the Cleveland bench all the way to the tunnel.

This occurred after Crowder and Perkins had already mixed it up, because Perk smacked Crowder with one of his trademark punishing screens and knocked him to the floor. Perkins was tagged with a flagrant foul 1, and both players were assessed technicals when Crowder sprung to his feet and charged toward the former Celtics folk hero.

Cleveland resorted to inserting the seldom-used Perkins after Kevin Love departed with a dislocated left shoulder that occurred when Boston forward Kelly Olynyk pinned the Cavs forward's arm as they both pursued a rebound.

Love called the move "bush league,'' which prompted a hilarious response from Evan Turner, who habitually speaks as though someone has slipped him a vial of truth serum.

"Honest to God, man,'' said the Celtics guard, "you ask anybody in our locker room, like our bigs, Kelly can't box out to save his life. No joke. He boxes our teammates out like that all the time in practice. Obviously, he gets away with it in practice, so he thinks he can in a game.''

The great irony, of course, is Olynyk's utter lack of physicality or interior toughness is the very thing that has squelched his growth as a player and prompted Boston coach Brad Stevens to whittle down his minutes (11 on Sunday) in the postseason.

Olynyk didn't intentionally try to hurt Love, because he wouldn't even begin to know how.

"Kelly doesn't have a mean bone in his body,'' Turner confirmed.

By the way, for those of you who still believe Love isn't an integral part of Cleveland's game plan, did you notice how the offense wilted the moment he left the game?

Love spaces the floor and creates better shots for his teammates. The team shoots 48 percent when he's in and 37 percent when he's out. When Love is on the floor, the Cavs shoot 40 percent from the 3-point line; when he's not, that number dips all the way down to 26 percent.

Thus, with Love out, the Celtics rightfully must have wondered, "So you're telling me there's a chance.'' There was, but it was fleeting and fragile.

Boston surged behind brief pockets of brilliance from Marcus Smart, among them his fourth-quarter block on Kyrie Irving and his willingness to get up in LeBron's grill when it was his turn to mark Cleveland's star.

The Celtics fed off the energy of Crowder, who played a spirited game on both ends of the floor before he limped off for good.

They even made a pair of second-half runs aided by the inside touch of Jared Sullinger. The big man posted a double-double (21 points, 11 rebounds), which could be viewed as promising -- unless Sullinger starts thinking he doesn't need to drop any weight after all, because look how effective he was in that Game 4 playoff loss to Cleveland. And well, you can see where this is going. Sullinger has the tools to be a 15-year pro, but not with the body he inhabits. Simple as that.

Sullinger expressed a willingness to work on his game and his physique.

"I want to be part of what's happening here,'' he said as he departed for the summer.

Isaiah Thomas, that shot of double espresso who injected new life into this team at the trade deadline, also expressed optimism about what lies ahead.

It was a rugged series for Thomas, who was thwarted by a Cavaliers defense that clogged the lane, took away his penetration and forced him to shoot hurried 3-pointers over the bigger, stronger Irving. Thomas shot 6-for-26 from the floor in his final two games and was overmatched and overwhelmed for large portions of the series.

And yet, like his team, Thomas didn't quit. He made some plays in the second half to offset his 4 turnovers and finished his season shooting a perfect 12-for-12 from the line in Game 4, which was more free throws than either LeBron or Kyrie.

After his drive cut the Celtics deficit to eight (99-91) with 37.5 seconds left on the clock, Thomas, who was standing out of bounds, nicked LeBron's inbounds pass, enabling Avery Bradley to intercept it, draw a foul and knock down two free throws.

LeBron rightfully screeched with disbelief at the referees for missing Thomas' blatantly illegal ploy, but in the end it didn't matter.

The Cavs never did lose their handle on this game, in part because Boston shot 13 percent behind the 3-point arc, missing 20 of its 23 attempts. The Celtics also coughed the ball up 14 times, which Cleveland converted into 15 points. Oh, and Boston missed 13 free throws. These are all ill-advised trends against a superior team with the best player on the planet roaming the parquet.

LeBron didn't shoot the ball particularly well on Sunday, but just as he did in all four games, he toyed with Celtics defenders and took over the game whenever it was required. LeBron checked out with 27 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He was in total command, start to finish.

That left Celtics fans to revel in smaller victories, such as when diminutive Phil Pressey lined up for a jump ball against LeBron and Boston got possession on the tip. Or when Smart coaxed in a reverse layup over the outstretched arms of LeBron and Kyrie.

Smart began what he termed his "unorthodox day" by arriving late to the team shootaround because he overslept. He was directed by his coach to explain himself publicly, a solid move by Stevens that makes it clear he expects and demands accountability.

"Coach is the reason we got here,'' Smart said.

The players dispersed secure in the knowledge their fan base is behind them. In fact, the crowd even booed their once-favorite son, the lovable bruiser Perkins, who discovered after he roughed up Crowder he is no longer welcome here.

Perkins is part of the past. Crowder is part of the C's present -- and, perhaps, their future.

No one knows what that will bring. Stevens is wary, and he should be. Ask the Phoenix Suns, the overachieving darlings of 2013-14 who shocked everyone by winning 48 games, how hard it is to build on that success. They finished 39-43 and were 10th in the Western Conference by this season's end.

When asked about the progression of his team against the mighty Cavaliers, Stevens posed a question of his own.

"Do [our guys] take it to a different level if the game's tied at the end?" Stevens wondered aloud. "That's the one thing we don't know, because we never showed that.''

He's right, of course. The Celtics accomplished nothing, really, in losing four straight -- except to prove they fought together with the kind of steadfastness that any Bostonian can appreciate.

It doesn't exactly make them championship driven, but it was fun to watch. And it generated something that seemed like a distant memory one short season ago: hope.