This was a rare playoff game that felt like a formality. Even when mostly whole this season, the Celtics had shown that they remained a level below these powerful Nets. And this Boston team is nowhere close to whole.
Brooklyn entered Game 5 of this opening-round series Tuesday night believing that this would be just one minor step in its march toward the NBA Finals. Boston entered it wondering if there was any way it could just extend its season for one more day.
But the Nets had bigger concerns and were in no mood for this inconvenience to last any longer, as they rolled to a 123-109 home win and finished off the series, 4-1.
Brooklyn advances to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where a tantalizing matchup against the Bucks awaits. Boston, which went just 36-36 in the regular season, limps into another offseason that is filled with far more questions than answers.
“Obviously, we’ve got some really good players and some proven guys, but we have to improve,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “There’s several ways to do that. You can improve through continued development and the right work ethic and doing a good job with the developmental stuff. Then, obviously, there is the ability to acquire people.”
The Celtics had reached the Eastern Conference finals in three of the last four years. And each time there was a sense that they were on the verge of taking the next step in a conference that generally made a path visible.
But the East’s upper tier reached a new level this year. The Nets, 76ers, and Bucks all improved, and all have key pieces in place for years to come. For the Celtics, the task now goes beyond becoming a Finals team. They first have to show that they belong among that group.
Injuries and COVID-19 absences made it difficult to judge how far Boston must ascend, but there was enough data to show that it cannot stand still.
“This is the first year we’ve played with that many guys out of our core group that was out,” guard Marcus Smart said. “I don’t know. My job is to go out there and do everything I can to help the team win. The business side you leave to the front office and you just hope they do the right things and they do things to help this team.”
All-Star Jaylen Brown missed this entire series after undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a torn ligament in his wrist, and fellow starters Kemba Walker (knee) and Robert Williams (ankle) missed the last two games.
Those absences put an inordinate amount of pressure and responsibility on forward Jayson Tatum, and he gave his team everything he had. The 23-year-old tallied 32 points and nine rebounds on Tuesday night and scored 122 points over the last three games, providing further evidence that he can be a franchise cornerstone.
“I think he handled it about as well as he could possibly handle it,” Stevens said. “The amount of attention that he’s getting throughout the whole season, but especially the last couple games is really hard to operate under.”
Against Brooklyn, the lack of assistance was simply too much to overcome, however. The Celtics made just 27.5 percent of their 3-pointers and failed to go on any of the massive runs that would be required to pull off an upset.
James Harden had 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists to lead the Nets, who at times seemed to almost be toying with the Celtics, keeping them at arm’s length for long stretches until they decided they had had enough. Brooklyn’s stable of talent overwhelmed the Celtics throughout this series, and Boston’s Game 3 win at TD Garden that provided some hope turned out to be little more than a blip.
“I really would’ve loved to have a healthy team to compete against them during the playoffs,” Celtics forward Evan Fournier said. “But I guess we’ll never know.”
In the locker room after the game, Stevens told his players that he was proud of them for sticking together in a year that was more challenging than any other, as they tiptoed through a season taking place during a global pandemic, even as COVID-19 ravaged members of their own team. The injuries and isolation just created more obstacles.
“And we didn’t play perfect basketball, but we showed a lot of growth in the past few weeks, both individually and at times collectively,” Stevens said. “And so there’s stuff to build off of. But at the same time, the task is tall and if you want to be in the mix, then you’ve got to be better than we were.”
There were some promising developments, such as the play of second-year wing Romeo Langford, who started the last two games in place of Walker, as well as the potential flashed by rookies Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard.
But there were also disappointments, and there was glaring evidence that when the team’s top players were sidelined, some of the replacements were often simply not ready for substantial roles.
“I think we only played with our full team 10 or 11 games together,” Smart said. “There’s no way there’s going to be chemistry between us. We were fighting all year trying to build that, and every time we were getting to that point, something happened.”