Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was thankful to his players for the sacrifices they had to make during the NBA restart after their 125-113 Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat that ended their season.
"I really appreciated the way they played basketball all year, I really appreciated the way that they competed, I really appreciated the way they blocked out stuff that didn't matter," he said. "I really appreciated the way that they inspired with their voice while they were here and before. I appreciated the way that they empower."
Stevens had a lot to be thankful for.
After navigating an NBA season unlike any other — during which COVID-19 forced the entire league to relocate to a bubble in Florida, and a player's strike to protest police brutality and racism stopped play in the middle of the playoffs — the Celtics are going home short of their goal of making it to the NBA Finals.
For some, it's another disappointing outing from a team that could have and maybe should have done better. But look deeper and you'll find there's still much more potential for a team that swept the Philadelphia 76ers, hung on to beat the Toronto Raptors in seven games and then came up just short in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It's the third time in four seasons the Celtics have been left on the bleachers as runners-up in the Eatern Conference as another team got whisked away to the big dance.
But Marcus Smart, who in many ways is the heartbeat of this team, struck a positive tone after the game.
"I'm proud of my guys," Smart said. "I'm proud of the way we fought. I'm proud of the way we didn't fold, we didn't lay down. You know, we had plenty of chances where, you know, it could have been over early for us. We stayed with it. Played a great Miami team. You know, great coaching staff, great players, you know? And you've gotta give credit to those guys."
For Jayson Tatum, who has blossomed into an All-NBA player in just three years, it was a good learning experience.
"It's tough," he said. "But if you want those expectations, if you want to be that guy that's capable of doing those things, you know you've gotta go through some tough things, some ups and downs, some stuff I can learn from. You know, I think I can learn a lot moving forward from this season and this series overall."
Boston will now have to watch from home as Miami takes on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, just like everyone else.
It's fair to look at what could have been and feel slighted: Celtics-Lakers, the NBA's most historic rivalry, in a rematch of the 2010 Finals, the last trip either team has had to the big dance.
Coincidentally, that was also the last year that Kobe Bryant, whose death has loomed over this season, won a championship. LeBron James, who has been a constant foil for the Celtics and the man who has been tasked with taking Bryant's spot as the prime Laker, would have faced off against Tatum, an avowed disciple of Bryant.
And while the basketball machine will keep churning its endless conveyer belt of hot takes and tweets, it's nice to think of what this team did for just a minute. During a time when there wasn't too much to be happy about, the Celtics and the NBA as a whole gave people something to look forward to.
Looking back at the first couple of months of the pandemic where it felt like something as simple as going to the grocery store was like playing hot potato with your health, it was hard to see a path back for professional sports. Now, we once again schedule our days around tipoffs, kickoffs and first pitches.
But none of this could have happened without athletes who put their bodies on the line for our entertainment while a virus we're still learning about continues to spread across the planet.
The Celtics will be back. With players like Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown leading them, they'll almost surely have a shot as long as health allows.
But navigating this season so fans could have something to watch seemed like nothing short of a Herculean effort, for everyone involved.
Add to that the leadership that players like Brown have had in using their platforms to call for a more equitable and just society and there's only one feeling that really comes to mind.
It's the same one Brad Stevens expressed to reporters when talking about his team: gratitude.