- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge admittedly wasn't initially enthralled with the prospect of his team simply sneaking into the playoffs. A general manager is always focused on the future of his team, and better draft position almost always trumps an early exit from the postseason dance.
But these Celtics have been an exception to most rules this season and Ainge slowly came around on the idea. The Celtics closed the regular season playing basketball befitting a playoff-caliber team and Ainge drew satisfaction from seeing his coach and players achieve one of their primary goals with a late-season surge. Watch him courtside during these games and you can see he's 100 percent invested in the playoff experience.
With Boston at risk of being swept out of the postseason by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, you'll hear plenty of pundits decry the Celtics' decision to make this playoff surge. Especially with a whopping 63 hours between the Game 3 buzzer and tip-off in Game 4, you'll hear all about the obvious disparity in talent between the Celtics and Cavaliers, and you'll be told that Boston made the wrong choice in choosing a playoff push over ping-pong balls.
But that line of (revisionist) thinking greatly undervalues what the Celtics have gained in this brief playoff voyage.
We all knew that any potential Boston playoff appearance was going to be brief. This process was about gaining experience, playing in important games (including while simply fighting for that playoff berth) and actually competing for something. This playoff quest should be an important part of Boston's process in building toward a brighter future; you simply have to look past the brevity of the stay.
Regardless of whether the Celtics get swept out Sunday or steal a game and force the series back to Cleveland to prolong the inevitable, here are a few of the positives that will come from this experience:
Identifying players for the future
Ainge often said at the end of last season that Boston was trying to figure out which players on its roster would be "on the bus" moving ahead. For a young team in the building process, identifying those building blocks is important to roster construction.
Plenty can be gauged over the course of a season. But the playoffs provide a big stage to see how these young players perform when the intensity is cranked up.
The Celtics have only two players who will be unrestricted free agents this summer -- Brandon Bass and Jonas Jerebko -- though it seems likely this team will look much different by the start of next season.
Playing under the bright lights of the playoffs and against one of the best teams in the league can help Ainge and the Celtics' front office better evaluate who on the roster is capable of stepping up when the games matter more.
Rookie Marcus Smart hasn't been perfect, but last year's No. 6 pick has had a nice postseason and will be an impact player in this league. The Celtics should do whatever it takes to keep gritty Jae Crowder in green (and will have the ability to match any offers he receives as a restricted free agent).
Jared Sullinger has done a nice job giving the Celtics quality minutes in his surprise return from a foot fracture. Kelly Olynyk has played well in spurts, but his lack of playing time in Game 3 shows the strides he needs to make for the coaching staff to have the confidence to play him in big games.
The playoffs are a final chance for these players to make an impression before Ainge & Co. roll up their sleeves and dive into the next phase of the roster overhaul.
Stevens gets his feet wet
With virtually no expectations, other than his own unceasing desire to put his team in position to win each night, second-year coach Brad Stevens has been able to dip his toes into the NBA playoff waters. He's getting a feel for the chess match that unfolds in a best-of-seven series and learning just how much you can tinker with rotations and strategy on a game-to-game basis.
Everyone references Butler's consecutive trips to the national title game when discussing Stevens' postseason success at the college level. We tend to gloss over how the Bulldogs lost in the round of 32 in 2008 and the opening round of the tournament in 2009. Coaches can have success in their early postseason forays but experience certainly helps the cause.
Much like he did at the end of last season, Stevens probably will spend a good amount of time reflecting on all the areas in which he must improve as a coach in the playoff atmosphere once Boston is eliminated. Stevens will use this as a learning experience for a time when the Celtics might not be as big of an underdog in this setting.
The free agent sell
One of the most important parts of Boston's playoff push is merely being there. The exposure generated from playing against LeBron James and the Cavaliers alone could be extremely important.
Have you seen the ratings from some of these games? Even if viewers are tuning in just to see James and the Cavaliers, it's not as if you can just ignore Boston. The Celtics have further done themselves well by being competitive each game in this series.
Imagine you're a free-agent-to-be checking in on the Cavs-Celtics at home. You see a Boston team that's young and feisty, led by a coach with a growing buzz factor. You stare at the team's roster and marvel at what they've accomplished just to get to this point. You see players like Evan Turner and Jerebko, who have resuscitated their careers since arriving in Boston because they've been put in spots that accentuate their talents and allow them to thrive. You see the way Isaiah Thomas has became a star and focal point on a team that lacks pure individual talent.
Are you not intrigued?
Ignore all the other free-agent factors for the moment -- weather, money, etc. -- a player has to look at Boston and think 1) That coach can help get the most out of me and 2) Maybe this team is just an impact player or two away from being a legitimate contender.
You see the way James gushed about the "well-coached" Celtics in his on-court interview after Game 2. You see the way the Garden roared when Boston made its runs during Game 3. You hear the announcers reference Boston's 17 titles and how this is a return to "Celtics basketball" with their scrappy style of play.
Is that enough to entice players to come here? It certainly can't hurt the sales pitch.
Sure, Boston could have finished with, say, the 10th-worst record in basketball. The Celtics would have had a 1.1 percent chance at the No. 1 pick and a four percent chance at a top-three spot. With Boston facing a 3-0 deficit that no team has ever rallied from, those odds are undeniably better than the ones they are currently facing.
Just remember that the Celtics are set up well for the future. They've got a ridiculous pile of draft picks, some developing young talent, and the potential to open up plenty of cap space in upcoming summers. Unlike most rebuilding teams, Boston is not reliant simply on a lucky bounce of a ping-pong ball to accelerate its return to true contender status.
Odds are that what Boston has gained in the playoffs will help it far more than whatever would have happened in that soul-crushing lottery room in New York in late May. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
The Celtics might get swept out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers, but there's plenty of positives in this experience.