Having all but disbanded their team and brought in a young unproven coach from college basketball in 2013, they were expected to experience a long lull. A few seasons as the NBA whipping boys was the price they would pay for rebuilding a proud club.
But the NBA play-offs is an equal rights organisation — half of the teams go through to the knockout stages even if they have lost more games than they’ve won, as is the case with the Celtics.
More tolerant of mediocrity than the sad case of the European Championships in soccer, the NBA reaps the benefit of extra games with extra income while agonising about the overall quality of the product.
Celtics fans won’t care too much though. Four wins on the bounce combined with the even deeper ineptitude of their closest rivals have elevated them from a start to the season which was a little truer to form.
Having missed the play-offs last year for the first time since before the boom period of the Big Three — Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen — there wasn’t much hope or even any pressure on their coach Brad Stevens to rectify that this season.
As the halfway mark of the season came and went, the Celtics were still a non-story, losing 33 of their 53 games in spite of the fact the Eastern Conference is by the far the weaker of the two 16-team conferences that make up the league.
Since adding Isaiah Thomas just before the trade deadline, they have enjoyed an 18-11 streak that compares well to the Cavaliers’ 19-7 record in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s everything,” Thomas said when asked about their play-off push by Celtics.com after Sunday’s 117-78 win over Cleveland. “In my NBA career, I haven’t been to the play-offs so it’s something that I want to experience. I heard it’s fun, it’s exciting and it’s a new season. Once you make the play-offs, everybody’s 0-0 and it’s a new season so I’m excited about it.”
But of course the missteps of others — both intentional and not so much — played right into their hands. Boston benefited from Cleveland’s secure position as the second seed overall and hammered their second string team.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets inexplicably threw in the towel against Chicago on Monday night and all of a sudden — without even being on the court that evening — the Celtics had a new problem to deal with: which of the top two teams they’d draw in the first round of the play-offs and how best to manipulate their success.
Because now, although they can achieve the seventh of eight seeds if results elsewhere go their way, that would unfortunately pair them against the form team occupying second — Cleveland — rather than the early pace setters, the Atlanta Hawks, who peaked at the wrong time, ensuring they were home and dry for the first seed just as they started to show signs of weakness.
At time of writing, they need to lose twice and have Indiana win their final two games if they are to avoid the Cavaliers juggernaut being powered by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
Admittedly, this is an inordinate amount of space I’m giving to the Celtics and the Eastern Conference, when it’s really all happening in the west.
The Golden State Warriors have been sensational throughout, buoyed by the free spirited scoring off Stephen Curry, a front runner for the season’s Most Valuable Player and embodiment of the nightly highlight reel, as they say on ESPN.
Elsewhere, the old dogs for the hard road are the San Antonio Spurs. Last year’s champions held off on moving from canter to gallop until the time was right and could sneak the second seed ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers, who have replaced the Lakers as the number one show in that town.
After that, a slew of impressive teams will curse an unjust system that gifts post-season excitement to middling teams across the country, leaving the better sides to fight each for the scraps.
It will be a loss for the neutral to see any of the likes of Portland, Houston, Memphis or Dallas leave the play-offs early while the eighth seed is going to be an even more intense battle between the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder who need the Pelicans to lose to San Antonio while beating Minnesota.
New Orleans are showing the benefit of rebuilding at almost the right time. Boston are miraculously ahead of schedule.
As the halfway mark of the season came and went, the Celtics were still a non-story, losing 33 of their 53 games