Ranking The Celtics’ 13 Playoff Teams In The Last 16 Years

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The 90’s were a tough time for Celtics fans as they watched their team go from winning three championships in the 80’s to missing the playoffs seven out of eight years from 1993-94 to 2000-01.

As of Tuesday night, the Celtics have now made the postseason 13 times in the last 16 years.  To celebrate, I put together ranking of those 13 playoff teams from worst to best:

13. 2003-04

Head Coach: Jim O’Brien, John Carroll

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 23.0 PPG

Chucky Atkins: 5.3 APG

Mark Blount: 7.2 RPG

If you think the Eastern Conference is bad now, consider that the 2003-04 Celtics still stand as the worst team to make the NBA playoffs in the 21st century.  The C’s started the season 22-24 before head coach Jim O’Brien resigned and was replaced by John Carroll for the rest of the year.  Things got worse under Carroll as they went 14-22 in their final 36 games, finishing 36-46 and somehow grabbing the 8 seed before getting swept by the Pacers in the first round.  That’s right, the best team in the Eastern Conference that year record-wise was not the eventual champion Pistons.  It was a team led by Jermaine O’Neal.  The Celtics benefited from such a weak Conference, but they would have been better off missing the postseason as they lost all four games to Indiana by double digits.  Their best player after Paul Pierce was Ricky Davis.

12. 2012-13

Head Coach: Doc Rivers

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 18.6 PPG

Rajon Rondo: 11.1 APG

Kevin Garnett: 7.8 RPG

We can thank Ray Allen for this one.  The Celtics came within one game of their third trip to NBA Finals in five years in 2012.  Instead of going all in for another playoff run the next year, Ray gave up on his teammates and joined the team they had just lost to in the ECF.  The Celtics tried to replace him with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee but it didn’t work.  They suffered the next year by stumbling to a 41-40 record (only played 81 games, last game was cancelled due to Boston Marathon bombing).  Life got tougher for the struggling Celtics when Rajon Rondo was ruled out for the season in late January after tearing his ACL.  They grabbed the 7 seed and eventually lost to the Knicks in the first round in six games, ending up on the wrong end of New York’s only playoff series win of the 21st century.  The C’s did make things interesting though.  After going down 3-0, they won the next two games.  In game 6 at the Garden, they trailed 75-49 with just over 9 minutes to go.  They went on a 20-0 run to cut the deficit to 6, but eventually fell short in what would be Pierce and Garnett’s last game in green.  The two of them were traded to the Nets along with Jason Terry two months later.

11. 2014-15

Head Coach: Brad Stevens

Team Leaders

Isaiah Thomas: 19.0 PPG

Evan Turner: 5.5 APG

Jared Sullinger: 7.6 APG

The Celtics finished 40-42, but their finished product was much better than the record indicates.  After trading away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green and starting the season 16-30, the C’s acquired Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline and went 24-12 the rest of the way, earning a playoff spot as the 7 seed.  Unfortunately they were matched up against LeBron and the Cavs in the first round.  They got swept, but three of their four losses were by single digits.

10. 2015-16

Head Coach: Brad Stevens

Team Leaders

Isaiah Thomas: 22.2 PPG

Isaiah Thomas: 6.2 APG

Jared Sullinger: 8.3 RPG

The young Celtics built on their breakout year in 2014-15 by following it up with a 48-34 record the next year.  Unfortunately a few key losses at the end of the season took them out of position for home court advantage in the first round and they fell to the 5th seed.  They lost to the Atlanta Hawks in six games.


9. 2004-05

Head Coach: Doc Rivers

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 21.6 PPG

Gary Payton: 6.1 APG

Antoine Walker: 8.3 RPG

Following their less than mediocre 36-46 season in 2003-04 that resulted in a lopsided sweep by the Pacers in the first round, the Celtics seemed destined for another frustrating year in 2004-05, starting out 27-28 in Doc Rivers’ first year as head coach.  Then they acquired old friend Antoine Walker at the trade deadline, sending Gary Payton, Tony Gugliotta, Michael Stewart, and a first-round pick to Atlanta.  Payton was then released by the Hawks and re-signed with Boston for the remainder of the year.  Led by Pierce, Walker, Payton, and Ricky Davis, the C’s went 18-9 the rest of the way and earned the 3 seed in the weak Eastern Conference.  They were once again matched up with the Pacers in the first round and pushed them to 7 games, a much more respectable performance than the year before.  That series will always be remembered for what is widely regarded as the low-point of Paul Pierce’s Celtics career.  His foul on Jamaal Tinsley in game 6 in Indiana led to an ejection which resulted in Pierce walking off the court waving his jersey over his head.  He then showed up to his post-game press conference with a bandage wrapped around his face, claiming he had a “fractured jaw”.  Luckily his teammates had his back and pulled out the win in overtime to force a game 7, which the Celtics lost by 27 points in front of their home crowd at the Fleet Center.  This would be the last time the C’s would see the playoffs until 2007-08.


8. 2002-03

Head Coach: Jim O’Brien

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 25.9 PPG

Antoine Walker: 4.8 APG

Paul Pierce: 7.3 RPG

The first of the Celtics’ three consecutive first-round playoff match-ups with the Pacers came in 2003, and it was the only one where the C’s came out on top.  After finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference at 44-38, they were able to upset Indiana in the first round in six games led by Paul Pierce’s 25.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 6 assists per game in the series.  The highlight came in game 4 in Boston with the Celtics up 2-1.  Pierce finished with 37 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists to give the green a commanding 3-1 lead.  His performance included the legendary dagger three over Al Harrington in the closing minutes.  Unfortunately the C’s were swept in the second round by the New Jersey Nets, a series that included a couple blowout losses.  This would be Antoine Walker’s last season with the C’s before his return in 2005.


7. 2016-17

Head Coach: Brad Stevens

Team Leaders

Isaiah Thomas: 29.1 PPG

Isaiah Thomas: 6.0 APG

Al Horford: 6.7 RPG

I’m safely placing this year’s Celtics team at number 7.  That would make them second worst of the eight teams on this list that won a playoff series.  If they end up in the Eastern Conference Finals, I’ll move them up into the top 5.  If they get bounced in the first round, I’ll move them down.  But right now this is where they stand.  They’re currently 46-26, and have a good chance to hold onto the 2 seed in the East with 10 games remaining in the regular season.  This is clearly a better team than last year’s with the addition of Al Horford and the growth of Isaiah Thomas into an MVP candidate, but I’m not ready to say they’re better than the Big 3 Era teams that lost in the second round.


6. 2010-11

Head Coach: Doc Rivers

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 18.9 PPG

Rajon Rondo: 11.2 APG

Kevin Garnett: 8.9 RPG

Coming off a crushing loss to the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals, the Celtics added an aging Shaquille O’Neal as they got ready to make another run at a title.  The old, broken down Shaq only played in 37 games, averaging 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game when he was on the floor.  Luckily Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo all played at a high level and led the C’s to a 56-26 record, good for the 3 seed in the East.  They easily swept the Knicks in the first round, the only series sweep recorded by any of these 13 recent Celtics’ playoff teams.  In the second round, they lost in 5 games to the Miami Heat.  Miami, who was in the first season of their LeBron era, would eventually lose to the Mavericks in the NBA Finals.

5. 2008-09

Head Coach: Doc Rivers

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 20.5 PPG

Rajon Rondo: 8.2 APG

Kevin Garnett: 8.5 RPG

This team should have been arguably the greatest Celtics team in franchise history, and that’s not an exaggeration.  Coming off the championship win in ’08, they started the season off 27-2.  They were 44-11 on February 19th when Kevin Garnett went up for an alley-oop against the Utah Jazz and came down on one leg, refusing to put any weight on his right knee.  KG was forced to miss the next 14 games before returning for four and then being ruled out for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.  Without their most important player, the C’s fought for a 62-20 record, winning 10 of their last 12 regular season games.  Their first-round match-up with the Chicago Bulls still stands as the greatest first-round playoff series in NBA history.  Seven games, no team won two in a row the whole series.  Five of the games went into overtime and five of the games were decided by one basket.  Game 4 went into double OT and game 6 went into triple OT.  The best part?  The Celtics won.  Pierce, Allen, Rondo and the C’s moved onto the second round where they would be matched up with Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.  After holding a 3-2 lead in the series, they eventually lost in 7 games.  There’s no chance they ever would have lost to Dwight and the Magic if KG were healthy.  Orlando eventually lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals in 5 games.

4. 2001-02

Head Coach: Jim O’Brien

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 23.4 PPG

Kenny Anderson: 6.0 APG

Tony Battie: 9.5 RPG

This is the season that restored Celtic Pride after the drought in the 90’s.  After missing the playoffs six straight years, the C’s finally gave us some late Spring basketball.  They were 31-27 through 58 games, but went 18-6 in the last 24 to finish 49-33 and grab the 2 seed in the East.  They carried that momentum into the playoffs by beating Allen Iverson and the defending Eastern Conference champion Sixers in six games.  In the second round, they handled the Pistons in five to earn their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 1988.  Taking on Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets, the Celtics would lose game 1 of the ECF in New Jersey.  They bounced back by stealing game 2 on the road and stripping the Nets of their home court advantage.  With the series tied 1-1, game 3 in Boston was one for the books.  The C’s trailed the Nets 74-53 at the start of the fourth quarter.  Led by Paul Pierce’s 19 fourth quarter points, they were able to overcome the 21-point deficit and record the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history.  Antoine Walker also contributed 23 points and Kenny Anderson had 15 as the Celtics took a 2-1 lead in the series.  Unfortunately they dropped the next three, ending their improbable run.  The Nets went on to get swept by Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers in the NBA Finals.

3. 2011-12

Head Coach: Doc Rivers

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 19.4 PPG

Rajon Rondo: 11.7 APG

Kevin Garnett: 8.2 RPG

We weren’t even sure if there was going to be a season in 2011-12, and thanks to the lockout there wasn’t until Christmas.  The Celtics’ Big 3 wasn’t getting any younger, and they likely benefited from the shortened 66-game regular season.  They also benefited from Rajon Rondo averaging 11.7 assists.  After going 17-17 in their first 34 games, the C’s flipped the switch and went 22-10 the rest of the way to finish 39-27.  They were the 4 seed in the East and drew a match-up with the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.  After losing game 1, Paul Pierce’s 36 points led the green to a road win in game 2 and they never looked back, going up 3-1 and eventually winning the series in 6.  The second round against the Sixers came down to game 7 at the Garden, where Rondo capped off a triple-double (18-10-10) with a clutch three to seal the win and send the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in five years.  The 2012 ECF was one of the most thrilling series’ I’ve ever witnessed, and also the most poorly officiated.  Everyone could see that the fix was in after game 1 when the refs were just looking for reasons to hand the Celtics technical fouls.  The C’s lost the game fair and square regardless of the bad calls, but in game 2 the poor officiating decided the outcome.  In a tie game with just over a minute left in overtime, Rondo drove to the basket and was raked across the head by the forearm of Dwyane Wade as he went up for a layup.  The refs swallowed their whistles and the Heat drove down the floor and got an easy dunk from Udonis Haslem.  Miami went on to win 115-111 despite Rondo’s 44 points.  What makes that awful non-call especially frustrating is that the Celtics went on to win the next three games of the series, capped off by Pierce’s dagger three over LeBron in Miami in game 5.  With his team trailing 3-2, LeBron came into the Garden and dropped 45 points in game 6 to force a game 7.  The Celtics ran out of gas in game 7 in Miami, falling 101-88 after coming within one game of their third NBA Finals appearance in five years.  But if the refs didn’t steal game 2, there’s a good chance the C’s would have won the series in 5.  Instead, the NBA got what they wanted as LeBron went on to win his first ring.  A few weeks later, Ray Allen jumped ship and went to the Heat.

2. 2009-10

Head Coach: Doc Rivers

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 18.3 PPG

Rajon Rondo: 9.8 APG

Kendrick Perkins: 7.6 RPG

With Kevin Garnett back to full health and the addition of Rasheed Wallace, the Celtics were ready to make a run at banner 18.  Thanks to Rajon Rondo becoming an All-Star for the first time and turning the Big 3 into the Big 4, they started the season 23-5.  In what seemed like an effort to preserve their aging superstars for the playoffs, the C’s coasted for the remainder of the regular season, going 27-27 the rest of the way to finish at 50-32.  Once the postseason arrived, they flipped the switch.  In the first round, they handled the Miami Heat (pre LeBron) in 5 games.  After losing to LeBron and the Cavs in game 1 of the second round, the Celtics stole home court advantage by taking game 2 in Cleveland and going on to win the series in 6 games.  It was the second time in three years that Boston eliminated James’ Cavs from the playoffs, leading to his departure to Miami after the season.  In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics got a rematch against the Orlando Magic, who eliminated them from the playoffs the year before.  Only this time, KG was healthy.  Up 3-0 in the series, the Celtics lost their next 2.  In game 6, mid-season acquisition Nate Robinson provided 13 second quarter points off the bench to break the game open and send the C’s to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years.  The 2010 NBA Finals against the Lakers was a classic series that I hate talking about because it was so heartbreaking.  LA won in 7, but who knows what would have happened if Kendrick Perkins didn’t get hurt in game 6.

1. 2007-08

Head Coach: Doc Rivers

Team Leaders

Paul Pierce: 19.6 PPG

Rajon Rondo: 5.1 APG

Kevin Garnett: 9.2 RPG

After finishing 24-58 in 2006-07, the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the off-season and improved to 66-16 in the first year of the new Big 3 Era, the third best record and the best single-season turnaround in franchise history.  After a surprising 7-game series with the Hawks in the first round, they faced LeBron and the Cavs.  That series also came down to game 7, where Pierce and James gave us a duel for the ages.  LeBron finished with 45 while The Truth had 41, but the Celtics came out on top and punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in six years.  They beat the Pistons in 6 games and returned to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1987, where they would face the Lakers for the 11th time in NBA history.  Behind Finals MVP Paul Pierce, the C’s won in 6 games, finishing the series off with a lopsided 131-92 victory at the Garden and raising a 17th championship banner to the rafters.

So there you have it.  We haven’t exactly been the Spurs or the Lakers or the Heat this century (although I’d rather be us than two of those teams right now), but 13 playoff appearances in 16 years is something to be proud of.  The result has been one championship banner, two NBA Finals appearances, four Conference Finals appearances, and countless classic games and series’ that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.  If the Celtics can continue to be consistently competitive like they have been since 2001, that Larry O’Brien trophy will eventually make its way back to Boston.


Follow Jack Bardsley on Twitter @BostonsBigFour


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