Maine Celtics reflect on season's path to first-ever NBA G League Finals

Apr. 16—His team had been soundly defeated, finally knocked out of the NBA G League playoffs, but Maine Celtics Coach Blaine Mueller spoke up after answering what was intended to be his final question of the postgame press conference.

"I'm good, if anyone has a couple (more)," he said.

It was as if Mueller didn't want the season to end. And why would he? From an up-and-down start to a the deepest finish in team history, it was a fun run this winter in Maine.

"I have a tremendous amount of pride in this group. I told the guys, we didn't need a championship to know how special of a team this is, how special the locker room is," Mueller said after the team's 117-100 loss to Oklahoma City in Game 3 of the G League Finals. "It would have been nice to have so everybody else would know...but we'll look back (fondly). For me, this is the best year of my life. I had so much fun."

Point guard JD Davison, who led the team with 20.8 points and 8.6 assists per game, said his second season in Maine was a memorable one.

"It was definitely special," he said. "I just loved this group. I wish we could have won it, and been out there celebrating for Maine and for the fans."

Maine's trip to the Finals was the first in team history, and continued a three-year upward trend in which the Celtics made the playoffs for the first time in five years in 2021-22, hosted a playoff game last year, and came a win away from a title this season.

"This program continues to grow and develop," General Manager Jarell Christian said. "Each year, it's continued to get better. It's a huge testament to the people that have continued to be a part of that process."

While Maine's record in the developmental league has improved, it's mirrored the success of the parent club in the NBA. Boston has gone from winning 51 games in 2021-22 to 64 and claiming the Eastern Conference's top seed this year, and Christian said one team's success has influenced the other's.

"It's been high-character players. We have a really great scouting department and evaluation department in Boston, so we do a really good job of identifying guys we can really see thriving in our environment," he said. "It's just the standard. When you put on that Celtics jersey, you know what the standard is. The standard and expectation is to compete at a high level and compete for championships."

It didn't feel at first like it would be a championship-caliber season in Maine. The Celtics went 8-8 during the season-opening Showcase Cup, and then were 11-11 following a pair of losses to the Birmingham Squadron by a total of three points.

By seemingly every metric, the Celtics were an average team — high on talent, but unable to translate it into consistent victories.

"I knew that if they continued to be a close-knit group, that they were going to have a chance," Christian said. "I'd be lying to you if I said back in December I thought we'd be in this position. ... I knew they would be able to do something special with just a little bit of luck."

The players knew they were capable of more, which is why they convened after the Birmingham games to refocus for the final 12 games.

"We had a talk, just the team only, where we just talked about everything we could do to get to this point," Davison said. "I can't explain the way that this group fought and came together from beginning to now."

It showed in the results, as Maine won its next six games and 10 of the next 12 to earn a bye in the playoffs. The presence of two-way player Neemias Queta, who played seven of his eight regular-season games from the second Birmingham loss on, provided a lift. Two-way players Davison and Drew Peterson also stepped up, while Jordan Walsh, playing on assignment from Boston, impressed and DJ Steward became one of the league's top sixth men.

"I'd say it was a pretty crazy run," Mueller said. "We were better than our record. We were (just) struggling to figure out how to win games, how to close games."

The surge continued as the Celtics made their way through the playoffs, entertaining the fans that began filling the Portland Expo in sellout numbers. The fans developed an attachment to the players, even though such bonds in the G League are short-lived. Only two players returned to Maine from last year's team, and Christian said such turnover will be the story again this year.

"That's the beautiful thing about the G League, and particularly the success we've had in Maine," Christian said. "The retention rate is not very high. ... It'll probably be similar next year. Maybe two, a max of three guys from this team will be back in Maine next year."

Christian said some of the players from this team could have NBA success in the years to come.

"Neemias has kind of proven he can be a back-up or third-string center with the Boston Celtics. Jordan Walsh, if he continues to grow and develop, I think he's going to be a pretty special player," Christian said. "I'm rooting for JD, I've seen the growth from him over the last two seasons. ... There's always going to be internal opportunities we look for in filling that Boston Celtics roster."