BOSTON — The pass was a thing of beauty, flying over 80 feet of parquet, hitting its target in stride for an easy score. In the stands, no one knew whether to admire it or cringe.
Rajon Rondo fired the bullet pass, reminiscent of so many others here in years past, and Jimmy Butler gathered it and hopped for the layup—a former Celtics hero feeding a would-be Celtics star, all leading to more points for the Chicago Bulls on a distressing Tuesday night at the TD Garden.
By the end of the evening, the Bulls would be departing with a 2-0 lead in this first-round series—the first eighth seed ever to do so in a best-of-seven series—and the Celtics would be questioning everything.
The NBA playoffs have a way of clarifying things, and this series has already laid bare a few truths about the Celtics: They were never as good as their record, or their No. 1 seeding, implied. They badly need a dynamic star like Butler. And the pure joy of overachieving has faded, replaced by an anxiety to contend again.
It was never clear whether Butler was truly available at the February trade deadline, nor how much it would have cost to acquire him, nor whether that cost was reasonable, nor whether Butler alone could have pushed the Celtics past LeBron James.
All Celtics fans know is that Butler, with help from Rondo and Dwyane Wade, destroyed their team this week (52 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists in two games) and tainted a once-thrilling 53-win season. In the process, Butler may have also crushed all the trade speculation for good.
A collapse in this series, on the heels of a disjointed season, might reasonably push the Bulls to rebuild, to cash out Butler for a package of draft picks and players—of which the Celtics have an abundance. But a trip to the second round might change everything.
Who trades a superstar after pulling off a historic upset?
“If they had gotten swept, they would have been inclined to blow it up,” says one source with ties to the Bulls. “But they're so ‘which way the wind is blowing.’ If they make it to the second round, they may talk themselves into trying to keep it together and build around Jimmy.”
In fact, this postseason could serve as a major inflection point for the entire Eastern Conference.
It all pivots, as usual, around LeBron James.
The Toronto Raptors appeared to have the talent and depth to challenge the Cavaliers, but they are struggling just to get past the spry Milwaukee Bucks. Two key Raptors, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, will be free agents this summer, with hefty price tags.
But it's James and the Cavaliers, per usual, who are creating the most intrigue and angst, for themselves and everyone else in the East.
The Cavs staggered into the postseason, looking as vulnerable as any LeBron-led team has in years. James is 32. The roster around him is old. They might make the Finals again anyway, but the mere possibility of a Cavs collapse means hope for every rival and could shape the offseason to come.
If the Cavs are unbeatable, it might not make sense for a team to mortgage its future for a year of George or two seasons of Butler. It might seem imprudent to spend tens of millions of dollars in luxury taxes to keep an aging Lowry and Ibaka.
But if the Cavs are wobbly, and the East is up for grabs, the calculus changes.
“It presents an opportunity to speed up your timeline,” says one Eastern Conference executive.
James has had a stranglehold on the East since 2010-11, when he took the Miami Heat to the first of four straight Finals. When James rejoined the Cavs in 2014, the power went with him, to the tune of two more conference titles.
In six years of uninterrupted dominance, James has knocked 11 different franchises out of the Eastern Conference playoffs and defeated five different teams in the conference finals. He has altered more fates and ruined more careers than anyone since Michael Jordan.
“He's that great of a player,” says Wade, James' running mate for four years with the Heat. “We talked about that in Miami: Once he got in, it was like Jordan—it was going to be hard to get him out. And he's proven that.”
Nothing lasts forever, of course, and the Cavs are now confronting some of the same challenges that ultimately eroded the Heat: an aging bench, a lack of draft picks and a bulging payroll, with no room to add fresh talent.
Cleveland might win the East again anyway, because James is that great, but the Cavs have perhaps reached a tipping point.
“I hope so,” Wade says, laughing. “There's teams that, all they dream and sleep and eat and think about is beating LeBron and beating Cleveland.”
This has been a particularly weird and volatile opening week in the East playoff bracket.
The Bulls (41-41) and Pacers (42-40) didn't qualify for the playoffs until the last night of the season. Yet the Bulls are now halfway to the second round, and the Pacers have thoroughly stressed out the Cavs, by nearly stealing Game 1 in Cleveland and surging to a 26-point lead (before collapsing) in Game 3.
The third-seeded Raptors, a conference finalist last year, just suffered a 27-point beatdown by the Bucks, a team that starts two rookies and missed the playoffs last year. Milwaukee leads the series 2-1.
Rarely have the top three seeds in a conference seemed so shaky. And seldom has an eighth seed looked as potent as the Bulls did in taking Games 1 and 2. They suffered a setback Friday, with the news that Rondo has a broken thumb and is out indefinitely, but Chicago still has a great chance to pull the rare 8-vs.-1 upset, with the next two games at home.
The Rondo-Butler-Wade experiment was fraught from the start and strained for much of the season. In fact, Rondo hardly spoke to his fellow stars at all, according to an NBA source, preferring to spend time with the Bulls’ younger players.
That changed here Tuesday afternoon, when the three stars, at Rondo’s request, met for three hours at the team hotel.
“It was Rondo’s doing,” the source says. “They talked more than they had talked all year long.”
Rondo followed that meeting with one of his best games in years, slicing up his old team with that familiar passing wizardry and compiling a near-triple-double: 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds, plus five steals.
The following spring, the Celtics made one last run to the Finals, eliminating the Cavaliers along the way, sending James fleeing to Miami and beginning this cycle.
No one in the East has beaten LeBron since then.
For all the angst in Boston, the Celtics might still be positioned better than any Eastern Conference team outside of Ohio. They have a legit star in Isaiah Thomas, a deep roster, an elite coach (Brad Stevens) and yes, all those draft picks—including Brooklyn’s top-four pick this June and the Nets’ unprotected first-rounder in 2018.
If any star players do hit the trade market this summer (Butler? George? Perhaps Kevin Love if the Cavs collapse?), the Celtics are poised to strike. If they end up using the Nets’ draft pick, they could land a franchise-anchoring guard (Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball) or a dynamic wing (Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum).
If the Celtics appear to be underachieving right now, it’s only because they overachieved to get here. No one foresaw a 50-win team rising so quickly in the wake of an all-out teardown, no one projected Thomas as an All-Star, and certainly no one expected a first-place finish as long as LeBron was still standing.
They have a rare luxury, of simultaneous success and high draft picks, and ample cap room to spend. General manager Danny Ainge has proved adept at converting assets into stars, and he may yet be rewarded for his patience.
The Celtics were the last Eastern Conference team to oust LeBron in the playoffs. They might be the next team to do so, too. Just not this year.