Tim Bontemps, ESPNMight 30, 2023, 02:27 AM ET
BOSTON — Jimmy Butler had the ball and surveyed the scene.
It was early within the fourth quarter of Monday’s Sport 7 of the Jap Convention finals, and the Miami Warmth had absorbed every part the Boston Celtics — and the raucous crowd inside TD Backyard — had thrown at them. Miami’s playoff hero was entering into for the knockout blow.
Butler acquired the matchup he had spent all sequence searching — a swap with Celtics massive man Robert Williams III getting matched onto him — and he rose up for a step-back midrange jumper. Swish.
On the different finish, Celtics ahead Jaylen Brown began a drive to the ring, just for Butler, snaking in behind him, to tip the ball away.
Fatefully, it landed within the arms of Caleb Martin — who throughout the sequence became a cross between Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — and he threw it forward to Butler for an off-the-cuff two-handed dunk and a swing on the rim for good measure.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was already on the courtroom to sign for a timeout.
Practically 11 minutes remained in Boston’s season, however the end result had already been assured. Followers who serenaded the Celtics with boos as they trudged to the bench knew it too.
Boston’s hopes of a return journey to the NBA Finals — and to change into the primary workforce in league historical past to beat a 3-0 deficit in a playoff sequence — had been gone.
“We acquired punked,” Celtics ahead Grant Williams advised ESPN. “We didn’t play our sport from begin to end. Defensively, we simply misplaced all of it. After which offensively, we had been scrambled and making an attempt to do every part ourselves and simply didn’t go our manner.
“You hate to have that be the tip of your season, particularly with the combat that we’ve proven.”
A short time after Butler’s dagger, the Warmth celebrated a 103-84 victory, sending the franchise again to the Finals for a second time in 4 seasons — each on the expense of the Celtics. That Miami did make historical past — the Warmth turned the primary workforce to advance out of the play-in match and attain the Finals — was of little consequence to anybody inside the sector.
As an alternative, the overwhelming feeling was of a possibility misplaced. The Celtics’ slogan for this yr’s postseason run — Unfinished Business — performed off their journey to the 2022 Finals, falling two wins in need of a title, and the group’s focus to get one step additional.
However quite than ending their enterprise, the Celtics at the moment are headed right into a summer time of soul-searching, unpacking what went incorrect and what it’ll take to repair it.
Yr 1 of the Celtics’ surprising teaching change
“I simply didn’t have them able to play.”
These had been the primary eight phrases of Mazzulla’s information convention after the Celtics had been trounced in Sport 3 of the East finals.
Mazzulla shielding his gamers wasn’t a shock. All through the season, he had gone out of his option to by no means take goal at his workforce — a pattern that had solely ratcheted up all through the playoffs. It was additionally the newest instance of how Mazzulla offered a stark distinction in teaching kinds over the previous season.
Mazzulla — who at 34 is the NBA’s youngest coach — was an assistant on Ime Udoka’s employees final season earlier than being thrust into main the workforce simply three days earlier than the beginning of the common season after Udoka was suspended for a number of violations of workforce guidelines.
On media day, Mazzulla mentioned he hoped to proceed with the system that had labored underneath Udoka, which resulted in Boston reaching the Finals for the primary time since 2010.
“It’s not about carrying on from one particular person,” Mazzulla mentioned. “It’s about carrying on the id of our gamers. So we had our struggles early final season, however at our greatest we knew what our id was. … It was our buy-in from a defensive standpoint, after which it was sharing the ball and shifting rapidly on the offensive finish.
“In order a lot as we are able to follow the issues we had been nice eventually yr, after which discover areas to enhance alongside the way in which, I believe is the fitting option to go.”
The variations between Mazzulla’s and Udoka’s strategy rapidly turned clear.
Udoka, all through his one season in Boston, would provide blunt assessments of his gamers to the media. Udoka blasted his workforce for an absence of psychological toughness in January 2022 after Boston blew its fourth lead of no less than 19 factors that season.
The identical might be mentioned for Boston’s on-court strategy. Udoka sometimes leaned on greater, stronger, extra defensive-oriented lineups. The pairing of Al Horford and Robert Williams turned a lineup staple, and the bruising Grant Williams was the workforce’s lead reserve.
Mazzulla spent this season hewing to smaller and quicker lineups with extra taking pictures. After Robert Williams had knee surgical procedure simply earlier than the beginning of coaching camp, the Horford-Williams pairing hardly noticed the courtroom till late within the second spherical towards the Philadelphia 76ers, with Mazzulla as an alternative preferring to start out Derrick White. Grant Williams flitted out and in of Boston’s rotation, with Mazzulla as an alternative leaning on offseason addition Malcolm Brogdon in a transfer to offer a extra dynamic offensive assault.
“The three-point try fee is an important stat within the sport of basketball,” Mazzulla mentioned after a loss to the Brooklyn Nets in March, partly explaining his strategy to the sport, “due to the tempo of play, due to the shot choice and due to the flexibility to go on runs.”
Boston completed the season 38-2 when it hit no less than 40% of its 3-pointers and 30-32 when it didn’t. That’s why, in a manner, it was becoming that Boston’s season slipped away because of an terrible taking pictures evening. The Celtics went 9-for-42 from behind the arc in Sport 7, tied for the second-worst taking pictures efficiency of Boston’s season. Over their last two video games, the Celtics shot a mixed 16-for-77 from 3. Miami went 28-for-58.
“No,” Mazzulla mentioned after Sport 7 when requested if Boston was too reliant on the 3-point shot.
For a lot of the season, Mazzulla’s strategy labored. The Celtics went from ninth within the league in 3-point makes an attempt two years in the past to second this season. White was named to the NBA All-Defensive Workforce. Brogdon was honored because the league’s Sixth Man of the Yr.
The Celtics boasted the NBA’s greatest internet ranking throughout the common season. They had been second in each offensive and defensive ranking, the primary workforce to complete within the high two in every class for the reason that 2016-17 Golden State Warriors.
Boston was uncovered within the postseason. The Celtics dropped to tenth in defensive effectivity amongst playoff groups, battling the inconsistent play that plagued them throughout their run to the Finals final season. The three losses to Miami at TD Backyard on this sequence dropped Boston’s file to 11-12 at house over the previous two playoffs, essentially the most house losses over a two-year span in NBA playoff historical past.
Late-game execution was an issue all through the playoffs, notably within the first two video games towards the Warmth, throughout which Boston dedicated a number of turnovers inside the ultimate three minutes and had two lengthy scoreless droughts down the stretch. (Boston additionally let Sport 5 slip away at house towards the Atlanta Hawks and dropped the opener to Philadelphia in a sport that Joel Embiid sat out with a knee damage.)
Jayson Tatum: Ankle damage made me ‘shell of myself’
Jayson Tatum discusses the impression of his injured ankle on his Sport 7 efficiency.
“We simply acquired to proceed to place protection first,” Celtics guard Marcus Sensible mentioned after Sport 7. “We had been so dangerous on offense final yr that that was a foremost focus for us this yr. Sadly, our protection took successful from it. We picked it again up, but it surely occurs.”
Celtics gamers have praised Mazzulla for his efficiency all through the season and did so once more after Boston’s run got here to a sudden halt.
“It was his first yr; we acquired to [Game 7 of] the convention finals,” Jayson Tatum mentioned of Mazzulla. “I don’t assume folks give him or us sufficient credit score that, two days earlier than the season begins, we discover out we’re going to have a brand new coach. …
“Clearly, we wished to win the championship. Didn’t occur. … However I believe Joe did a terrific job this yr.”
Boston seemingly runs it again, however huge star contracts loom
After struggling all through the primary 42 minutes of Sport 6 of the convention semifinals, and with Boston trailing by two factors to the Sixers in a contest it needed to win to maintain its season alive, Tatum abruptly turned his sport — and, on the time, the Celtics’ season — round, hitting 4 3-pointers and scoring 16 factors in these last six minutes to elevate Boston to a win.
“I’m one of many, humbly, probably the greatest basketball gamers on the planet,” Tatum advised ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth within the postgame on-court interview.
When Tatum then adopted that efficiency with 51 factors, setting a league file for essentially the most factors in a Sport 7, it seemed prefer it might be a storybook second on the way in which to a title for Boston.
Then the sequence towards Miami began. Tatum — who wore a T-shirt with “HUMBLY” splashed across to heat up for Sport 2 — didn’t make a subject aim within the fourth quarter of both of the primary two video games of the sequence earlier than sitting the whole fourth quarter of the Warmth’s blowout victory in Sport 3.
After serving to Boston claw its manner again into the sequence with three straight wins, Tatum turned his ankle on the primary play of Sport 7 and by no means seemed proper after it. “It was irritating to be a shell of myself,” Tatum mentioned.
Whereas Tatum’s damage and Boston’s poor taking pictures shall be lingering reminders of why the Celtics misplaced Sport 7, they had been to not blame for the Celtics’ 3-0 deficit. These points have a well-recognized ring.
With open air area and a 10-point lead, Boston can look unbeatable. However that crispness typically goes away in shut video games, changed by frenetic play that creates each pressured and unforced errors to gasoline the opposition — like what occurred within the last minutes of Sport 6, just for Boston to be saved by White’s last-second putback.
And that goes again to the workforce’s greatest gamers, Tatum and Brown, who’ve now performed in a mixed 199 playoff video games and who scored a mixed 15 factors on 15 photographs within the fourth quarters of Video games 1 and a pair of then didn’t play within the last body of Sport 3 as Boston fell into too huge a gap to beat.
Tatum struggled to 14 factors on 5-for-13 taking pictures, whereas Brown had as many turnovers as made subject objectives in Sport 7, ending with 19 factors on 8-for-23 taking pictures.
“Only a horrible sport,” Brown mentioned. “When my workforce wanted me most … [Tatum] damage his ankle, first play of the sport, and you might see it swelling up on him. He couldn’t transfer on the market. It was powerful for him.
“My workforce turned to me to make performs, and I got here up brief. I failed. It’s powerful.”
“I give credit score to Miami,” he added, “however only a horrible job.”
This summer time, Boston can provide Brown — after he made his second All-Star workforce and first All-NBA look — the richest deal in NBA historical past: a five-year, $295 million contract extension. (Had Brown not made All-NBA, he would’ve been eligible to signal a four-year, $189 million pact as an alternative.)
And if both Brown or the Celtics are unwilling to conform to an extension, the Celtics shall be ready during which they may lose Brown as an unrestricted free agent for nothing subsequent summer time.
“I don’t even actually know easy methods to reply that query proper now, to be trustworthy,” Brown mentioned when requested how he expects extension talks to play out. “Take it at some point at a time, deal with getting higher. Give attention to what the long run holds and see the place we’re from there.”
Assuming Brown agrees to a supermax extension, nevertheless, his future could be tied to Boston by way of the 2029 season, whereas Tatum — who by being named to a second straight All-NBA workforce certified for his personal five-year, $310 million extension subsequent summer time — is about to be underneath contract till the summer time of 2030.
Below the league’s new collective bargaining settlement — one the Celtics sarcastically helped play an outsize function in getting executed, contemplating Grant Williams, Brogdon and Brown are all on the Nationwide Basketball Gamers Affiliation’s govt committee — having two gamers combining for greater than $100 million per season might make workforce constructing tough.
With the rest of Boston’s core — Robert Williams, Sensible, Horford, White and Brogdon — all underneath contract for no less than the subsequent two seasons, the Celtics are as well-equipped within the brief time period as any NBA workforce to compete for championships now.
The way forward for Grant Williams is murkier. After being a stalwart of Boston’s playoff run final yr, his function fluctuated wildly underneath Mazzulla, together with in these playoffs. Williams shall be a restricted free agent this summer time, giving the Celtics the flexibility to match any provide or transfer on through a sign-and-trade deal.
“Simply targeted on right this moment. We deliberate on making it to the Finals, and it didn’t go that manner,” Williams mentioned.
“So I’ll determine [free agency] out when time comes.”
Boston’s championship window stays open. That’s all the time going to be the case when a roster options two of the league’s elite wing gamers who’re getting into their primes and can seemingly stay underneath contract by way of the remainder of the last decade.
However the previous a number of seasons already really feel, to a point, like missed alternatives. Since Brown entered the NBA in 2016, the Celtics have performed a league-leading 112 playoff video games, essentially the most by any workforce over a seven-year interval in NBA historical past with out profitable a title. Their 61 playoff wins throughout that span are greater than any workforce not named Golden State.
Over that very same timeframe, 4 groups — the Warriors (three), Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers — have gained championships, whereas the Warmth and Cleveland Cavaliers have made a number of Finals appearances.
However the Celtics maintain falling brief, with Butler and Miami changing into the newest group to face them down when it issues most. That Boston pulled itself to the brink of the best escape in NBA historical past solely provides to the distress.
Because of this, as an alternative of this battle-tested group ending their enterprise this season, the Celtics head into the offseason with no assurance they ever will.
“We’ve proven that we are able to get [to the Finals],” Tatum mentioned. “S—, we acquired to the convention finals. It’s my fourth time in six years — been to the Finals as soon as.
“We all know we had a particular alternative this yr. We simply fell slightly bit brief. It’s not like we’re not succesful [or] we don’t have the expertise. We do. Simply didn’t go our manner this yr.”