To great acclaim, Giannis Antetokounmpo claimed there is no failure in sports after his Milwaukee Bucks were ousted by the Miami Heat. Giannis’s perspective is fitting for fortune cookies but not professional sports playoffs.
Presenting the 2022-23 Boston Celtics, Exhibit A of why Antetokounmpo’s no-such-thing-as-failure philosophy is all wrong.
The championship-driven Celtics are on the verge of a massive Failure. They trail the Heat three games to none after an ignominious, inert 128-102 loss Sunday night in Miami. The Green melted down like a tray of ice cubes left out on Biscayne Boulevard, their effort evaporating along with their NBA title dreams.
With the path and the pieces to claim Banner No. 18, the Celtics getting bounced before the NBA Finals in this fashion will represent a bigger failure than the ballyhooed Bruins bowing out in the first round.
It looked perfectly lined up for the Celtics to chase a championship. Instead of raising a banner, they’ve razed their season with a lack of poise, perseverance, and mental fortitude.
The team that has “Unfinished Business” as its playoff credo looks finished. No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit (0-149). So the Celtics either have to channel the 2004 Red Sox and make history or they’re history.
Who thought we would be here a week ago when the Parishioners of the Parquet were riding high following Jayson Tatum’s 51-point tour de force versus Philly? That feels as distant and dusty as a VHS tape.
It’s not just the results that are bothersome for Boston basketball fans. It’s the manner in which they’ve unfolded.
The Celtics had double-digit leads in the first two games at home and were out-willed to the finish line, especially in Game 2 when Grant Williams foolishly inflamed the competitive fire of Jimmy Butler with trash talk he and his team don’t appear capable of backing up.
Overly bombastic role players are a uniquely Celtics problem.
In Game 3, Boston trailed by 22 in the first half and by a Larry Legend 33 in the second. Worse than the margin or the horrendous shooting nights for Tatum (6 of 18, 14 points) and Jaylen Brown (6 of 17, 12 points) was how the loss looked.
Charles Barkley eviscerated the Celtics at halftime for having the mental toughness of a flea. Entomologists might find that offensive to fleas. TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy said after the Celtics, down 31, surrendered a rim run in transition to YMCA-worthy center Cody Zeller: “This looks like a team who has quit.”
Amen. The Celtics kept chucking up threes as if they were tossing pennies into a wishing well.
Malcolm Brogdon said before the series that Miami “out-toughs most teams … but that’s not going to happen with us.” That’s exactly what has happened.
“They were coming out, they were together. They were physical,” said Brown, who has wilted in this series. “They set the tone, and we didn’t match the energy. It was a complete letdown, to be frank.”
The Celtics evoked the line from the movie “Remember the Titans” that goes, “Attitude reflects leadership, Captain.”
The Celtics’ lack of mental toughness and penchant for mentally melting down is a reflection of their leaders, especially Marcus Smart, the longest-tenured Celtic who once again became unglued in a huge game.
Last year, Smart did it in a Game 5 loss to the Golden State Warriors, becoming preoccupied with the officiating of Tony Brothers. This time, down by 18, he drew a technical foul for complaining to the same official. Then his fakery backfired when he was whistled for a completely unnecessary offensive foul bringing the ball up the court about 70 feet from the Celtics hoop. He should’ve been whistled for a second technical for throwing a forearm shiver at Miami’s Caleb Martin in the second half.
Presiding over this dumpster fire of a demise is Joe Mazzulla, the headstrong rookie head coach and the Smart of bench bosses.
Mazzulla looks overmatched against Miami maestro Erik Spoelstra. The next cut without the ball from Tatum and Brown will feel like the first.
However, in fairness, this same propensity for breakdowns, letdowns, and meltdowns has arisen under three straight coaches — current basketball ops boss Brad Stevens, Ime Udoka, and now Mad Mazz.
Unlike his predecessor Udoka, who called out players publicly to try to break these habits, Mazzulla coddles them like a helicopter parent.
“Yeah, I just didn’t have them ready to play,” said Mazzulla. “I just didn’t execute the proper game plan. I didn’t put them in the right mentality to be ready, and it’s my job to make sure that they’re connected and that they’re ready to play, and I didn’t do that.”
Mazzulla lamented his team’s loss of defensive identity. It has been an ongoing erosion, with the coach calling 3-pointers the most important stat in basketball. The Celtics look lost when the shortcut of the long-distance line gets cut off.
“Our defense hasn’t been especially what it was last year, but we’ve had tremendous strides in different directions,” said Brown. “And we’ve been able to find ways to win basketball games.”
Tatum and Brown, who combined to shoot 1 for 14 from beyond the arc in Game 3, are 7 for 40 from deep in this series. The Celtics are shooting just 29.2 percent from three in the series.
The Celtics have shaky leaders. Throw in the lack of leadership and late-game production from the Jays, and you have a team death-spiraling to disappointment.
The only good news is that these Celtics do their best work while trying to free-climb a mountain of adversity of their own making. The ascent can’t get any steeper. Plus, you have to think that Miami’s sizzling 3-point shooting (47.8 percent) is not meant to last.
The problem is that the Celtics have completely squandered any margin for error.
They’re on the verge of an epic failure when they were supposed to be on a redemption tour to a title.
Failure helps frame success. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to celebrate and savor achievement.
Failure was not an option for these Celtics, not after their pledges to transform their NBA Finals pain into championship champagne, not after a sizzling 21-5 start, not after the playoff path presented itself as though Red Auerbach had painted it from above in cigar smoke.
The Celtics’ options are down to prove everyone wrong with an all-time comeback or prove Giannis wrong and remind us why failure does exist in sports.