It’s over. The bull gang can put the parquet panels in storage for the summer. Let’s thank the hoop god for that.
Now it’s time for a change. Fire basketball boss Danny Ainge. Fire coach Brad Stevens. Fire the roster. Something has to give. The Boston Celtics simply cannot stand pat after the season we just witnessed.
Kyrie Irving (25 points) and the Brooklyn Nets put the Celtics out of their misery Tuesday in Brooklyn, beating the soft C’s, 123-109, in Game 5 at the quiet Barclays Center to advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs.
A Celtics team that went to the conference finals three times in the previous four years finished with 40 losses in 77 (regular-season and postseason) games, whimpering to the finish like a group that could not wait to get this thing over with. That’s certainly how objective fans would view the 2020-21 Boston basketball season.
There were injuries and there was COVID, but for the most part there was abject indifference and underachievement in this sorry season. You have to go back to the 2011 Chicken and Beer Red Sox to find a Boston team less admired than this crew. In their final days the Celtics became the polar opposite of a Bruins playoff team that has demonstrated toughness and resilience.
We were hoping to see a little of that old-timey Celtic Pride Tuesday in Brooklyn; some indication that the Celtics players care about this franchise as much as Celtics fans. We were hoping to see a little less love and support for the loathsome Irving, who stomped on the Celtics logo (designed by Red Auerbach’s brother, Zang) after scoring 39 points in Boston Sunday.
In the two days leading up to Game 5, there was plenty of noise from the likes of Kevin Garnett, Cedric Maxwell, and Glen Davis — men who won championships for the Celtics. But there was little indication that Stevens, Ainge, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and the rest of the friendly Celtics were the least bit bothered. Nobody was expecting a Kevin McHale-esque clothesline takedown of Irving, or anything like Robert Parish unloading on Bill Laimbeer, but any little pushback from the Green Team would have sufficed.
There was none of that. When it ended, almost all of the Celtics had hugs for Kyrie. Robert Williams and Kyrie hugged it out so long, I thought they would have to be separated with a crowbar. Bird and Laimbeer, this was not.
In his head-scratching postgame press conference, Irving alluded to his two years with the Celtics, saying, “There was a lot going on personally while I was there in Boston,” but added, “there’s nothing but respect for the players and coaching staff over there . . . “
Meanwhile, back on (round) planet earth, Stevens assessed his team, admitting, “We’re gonna have to get better. We never got a true look at this team this year, but the information showed that we need to get better . . . We have some really good foundational people in our building. We can get better and we will . . . We didn’t play perfect basketball, but we showed a lot of growth in the last couple of weeks.”
When Smart was asked if there was need for organizational changes, he said, “I don’t think it’s nothing to stress about. I think we’re all right.”
Exactly the problem. These guys think they are better than they are. They think they have accomplished something when they have not.
The Celtics came out chucking threes (16 attempts in the first quarter) and trailed, 33-24, early in the second. Playing again without Kemba Walker (bruised knee) and Time Lord (ankle, toe), there were a lot of minutes for Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, and Jabari Parker. Action was flat at both ends. A lot of standing around and watching.
The Nets scored on a parade of hard drives to the basket and no Celtic would take a charge (”No resistance whatsoever,’’ Kendrick Perkins told the NBC Sports Boston audience). The game didn’t get out of hand until late, but it never felt like the Celtics were a serious threat.
Irving made 6 of 9 floor shots and had 15 points in the first half, while James Harden scored 18 points with 9 rebounds and 7 assists. The Nets led, 59-51, at intermission and the Hall of Fame in Springfield did not request a video. Smart and Tatum combined to go 2 for 14 from beyond the arc in the first half. Tatum scored 11 on 13 shots. There was no urgency. It felt like a preseason game. It was hard to watch.
The Celtics “hung around” while the Nets tried to stay awake. Brooklyn led, 86-79, after three. A 3-pointer by Irving gave Brooklyn a 103-89 lead with 7:18 left and forced a Stevens timeout. Brooklyn led by 22 with 3:10 left.
Remember when Ainge fleeced the Nets in that Paul Pierce-Garnett trade eight years ago? It was supposed to make the Celtics great for the next decade and put the Nets in NBA purgatory indefinitely.
Who’s laughing now? The star-laden Nets look like a contender to make it to the NBA Finals, while the Celtics are reeling from one of the most disappointing seasons in the history of the Boston franchise.
Walker’s inability to play in the final two games was the final nail in this underwhelming season. It looks like Boston’s former All-Star guard is cooked. He averaged more than 80 games per season in the four years before he was acquired by Ainge. The Celtics babied him throughout the 2020-21 season, not playing him on the second night of back-to-backs. Still, after all that careful “management,” Walker was unavailable for the last two games because of a bone bruise on his knee. This had to be disappointing for a player who never won a playoff series in his eight seasons in Charlotte.
“I came to Boston to be part of high intensity games and fans going wild,” said Walker. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be a part of this.”
His contract is an albatross. Signing Walker made folks feel good after Irving bolted two years ago, but now the Celtics are on the hook for two more years and more than $70 million.
Who knows what the future holds? Ainge says he’ll be back and Stevens will be back. Also Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Not good enough. The Celtics are in need of big changes before the start of the 2021-22 season.