The end of the beginning

There’s nothing more final than losing The NBA Finals. It’s in the damn name. The Finals. And yet, after the Celtics lost Game 6 at TD Garden on Thursday night and all the disappointment and frustration settled, it felt more like the beginning than the end.

Today would have been Game 7 in San Francisco, a final chance to hang Banner 18. Alas, Boston won’t have that opportunity. Instead, they’re facing a summer of possible regret and disappointment. The rest of the league will quickly turn the page and their attention to the draft on Thursday and then free agency a week later. Summer League might offer a small distraction in July and then after, maybe then the Celtics will then look at next season as redemption.

“It doesn’t stop hurting. Honestly, it doesn’t stop hurting until we’re back in this position again,” a dejected Robert Williams said as the Warriors and their fans celebrated their fourth title on the parquet floor. “Starting at the beginning of the season, we just gotta be better, man. We gotta be better. Everyone got to take a step up. Add a little intensity to everything we’re doing, but it never stops hurting.”

Even for the Time Lord, time should heal all wounds. And despite what Marcus Smart described as “the hell it took to get here,” all that pain will eventually start fueling the fire for 2022-2023. For the first time in a long time, the team doesn’t feel like it needs a major makeover. After coaching seemingly a different team every season for eight seasons, now President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens seems to have the right roster in place for now head coach Ime Udoka to build on.

“The biggest message was ‘learn from this, grow from it, take this experience and see that there’s another level to get to with a team like Golden State that’s been there and done that. It was evident in a lot of ways. Don’t come back the same as players, coaching staff. Let this fuel you throughout the offseason and next year,” Udoka said.

That was a sentiment shared by Jaylen Brown. “The future is bright. I always look at adversity as an opportunity to shape an individual. For whatever reason, it wasn’t our time and it means that we still got a lot to learn,” Brown said. “For me, it’s always about growth, continuing to get better, continuing to find better ways to lead, and that’s what it’s about. The future is bright. I’m excited to get back next year.”

Every key rotational piece is signed through next season, Brown through 2024, Tatum, Theis, and White through 2025, and Smart and Robert Williams through 2026. President of Basketball Operations has a slew of TPE’s at his disposal, including a $17.1 million Traded Player Exception, and the mid-level exception to supplement the Eastern Conference field.

With a core group that’s just now entering their prime under a rookie coach with a year under his belt and a now defined style, we shouldn’t see the same October-to-January learning curve next season. As Udoka suggested, what might help the Celtics the most heading into the summer is not what they have, but more so, knowing what they don’t.

“This is just the start. The foundation has been set. We can hit the ground running next year,” Udoka said. Let’s get healthy and all be on the same page. We expedited the process of some of the things we wanted to do. Now, it’s a matter of taking that next step. There are levels and you could see the difference in Golden State, the team that’s been there and been together for a long time. For their core group, it’s been ten years now. We see what we can achieve, it hurts that we fell short of that, but the future is bright.”

Maybe it’s human nature to try to slough off the tangible results of a failed Finals for the ethereal nature of potential and hope. Like the seasons, sports has a cyclical way of making us believe that next year will be different. And while that’s all true, there’s also a greater sense that as much as these Finals mark a definitive end to the season, Boston will continue to build that bright future.

Udoka noted that it wasn’t his team’s lack of Finals experience that made a difference, but experience as a team as a whole. Brown and Tatum are wrapping up Year 6 and 5 respectively. Derrick White and Daniel Theis were picked up at the traded deadline. Conversely, the core of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry have played nearly a decade together.

But as much as time and familiarity matters, so does character and mindset. Resiliency became the buzz word around Boston. Smart preferred a different term. “It’s just hard-nosed. It’s who we are. We’re a family and we take and accept every challenge head on, no matter the outcome, no matter the advantages or disadvantages. We’re going to take it on full heartedly.”

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