NEW YORK — The Celtics come away from their first-round elimination at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets knowing they played their hardest; they give a championship caliber team their best challenge, and yet fell far short of making this a truly competitive series.
The 123-109 Game 5 loss at Barclays Center was simply a matter of the Nets toying with the Celtics for 3½ quarters and then using a couple of big shots to pull away and close out this series. The Celtics found they have so far to go to return to that level of previous seasons.
The Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are miles ahead of the Celtics at this point because of their star power and roster construction.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens again tried to combat the Nets with inexperienced players such as Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard. He depended on journeyman Jabari Parker for scoring. Grant Williams was playing heavy minutes at center because Robert Williams was out again.
It was a fitting end to a disheartening season. The Celtics were always a couple of baskets from pushing this game until the final minutes but could never convert. Finally, the Nets applied the knockout blow with a pair of 3-pointers midway through the fourth quarter and the rest was academic.
The Celtics entered the playoffs as a seventh seed and played like a seventh seed. They are a team that was not whole all season but a series of porous losses prevented Boston from making its playoff road easier, and it was matched up against a team with three of the best scorers of this generation.
It was almost unfair at times. But the Celtics’ ineptitude in some key games, and injury and COVID-19 circumstance, put them in this position. They were longshots to even win a game in this series, but they relied on a 50-point night from Jayson Tatum to win Game 3, Tatum responded with 40 in the Game 4 loss and 32 on Tuesday.
He’s a bona fide star but the Celtics found out they need three of those to get far in the Eastern Conference. Kemba Walker could never become that third star behind Tatum and Jaylen Brown and he missed the final two games of the series with a bone bruise in his left knee.
Williams was beset with a painful turf toe and sprained ankle that took him out of the final two-plus games of this series. You could attribute the Celtics failures to make this a more competitive series to merely injuries and it’s a legitimate case.
“We played pretty well under the circumstances,” Tatum said. “Not the season we hoped for or envisioned, coming together at the start of it but there’s a lot of things we had to deal with and try to overcome.”
But this team never quite had the intangibles — and many tangibles — to play to their potential. Like Tuesday, when they had a plethora of chances to push the Nets, who played far from their best game, and couldn’t take advantage because of missed 3-pointers and turnovers.
The Celtics proved to be a team that’s in love with the 3-point shot but not very good at shooting them. They were 11 of 40 from beyond the arc Tuesday, and could never emerge as anything better than average in that category.
This series showed the Celtics’ improved fortitude over the season but also exposed their weaknesses. There were constant breakdowns on defense. The absence of Williams robbed them of any rim protection. The bench lacked depth and offensive production. The Celtics were never whole and never quite right, even when they were close to healthy.
“There are very good teams across the East and we’re going have to get better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We never got a true look at this team this year but I think had enough information that shows we need to get better.”
Boston entered this series shorthanded without Brown and needed everything to go right just to push it to a sixth game. Tatum scored 122 points in the final three games, but he got little help.
Marcus Smart was supposed to tone down his 3-point addiction after last year’s NBA bubble but that never really happened. He was 1-for-10 shooting from three on Tuesday and 3 for 19 in the past two games. Smart scoring has to be a luxury for the Celtics moving forward, not a necessity.
No player would say what the team needed in the future. Smart and Tristan Thompson attributed this disappointing season to injuries and COVID-19. Tatum said he’s concentrating on improving and leaving the roster issues to management. Walker said he’s exhausted from Team USA obligations, the NBA bubble, knee management and ending the season unhealthy.
What was proved in this series is the Celtics have the ability to compete and play hard consistently under Stevens. They didn’t cave in or fall apart as some may have expected. But you couldn’t expect much more than this outcome when near perfection was the only way for Boston to stay close here. The Celtics have as much work to do this offseason as any team in the NBA because they are being lapped in the Eastern Conference.
“The task is tall and you if want to be in the mix, you have to be better than what we were,” Stevens said. “We showed when we’re totally together on both ends of the court that we can be a handful no matter who’s in the game. It was not always the case earlier this year. We had moments when we didn’t meet the moment. But we got better with that.”