They never learned. And they never adjusted.
Not the rookie coach. And not the core of players who have so much more big-game experience than their haphazard performances under the brightest lights suggest.
And so the Celtics season ended Monday night in frustrating and all-too-familiar fashion — with their worst habits rearing up at a moment when they should have been at their best.
Jimmy Butler scored 28 points, series-long nuisance Caleb Martin scored 26, and the Heat defeated the Celtics, 103-84, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Save for Game 6 hero Derrick White, who scored 18 points and singlehandedly pulled the Celtics within 7 in the third quarter, the Celtics mostly hit the snooze button through the game, particularly second-team All-NBA forward Jaylen Brown, who shot 8 of 23 and committed 8 turnovers, one more than the entire Heat starting lineup.
After winning three straight games and positioning themselves to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, the Celtics instead played like the worst of themselves, as if it were a random January game in Indianapolis rather than a chance at history.
There’s a reason NBA teams are now 0 for 151 in trying to win a playoff series after falling behind, 3-0. The hill is too steep. And the reasons you fell behind, 3-0, probably will show up again.
The ending leaves a true fan aching, but anyone who has watched this team regularly this season must admit it is fitting.
The Celtics’ dependence on the 3-pointer, refusal to push the offensive pace, and disconnected defense — recurring problems often but not always masked by their sheer talent — all contributed to their downfall.
Watching all of those flaws rear up yet again when history was at their fingertips makes one wonder whether they even realized there were lessons to be learned and adjustments to be made in the first place.
TNT’s Charles Barkley was brutally honest, and I imagine every Celtics fan watching was nodding in agreement, when he said, “They’re so undisciplined and un-fundamentally sound.
“They win games strictly on talent. They don’t even run an offense. That’s what disappointed me the most. You can win a lot of games on just talent. But against a zone, they just settle for jumpers. There’s no ball, body movement.”
Some offensive issues were justified, at least early in the game. Jayson Tatum rolled his ankle on the first possession and was a “shell of myself” from that point forward, as he put it. That was cruelly awful luck, and the opinion of anyone marginalizing the impact of his injury will be disregarded here.
But the remaining Celtics, save for White and the underused Robert Williams, handled it as poorly as possible.
Marcus Smart had one of those games where you’re again left wondering whether the longest-tenured Celtic has too much influence and is complicit in their inability to break teamwide bad habits.
Of all the lousy decisions the Celtics made, the one that annoyed me most came with about two minutes left in the first quarter, when Smart pushed the ball downcourt after collecting a Williams block, got into the lane … and then pulled back out and hoisted up a three. Spoiler: The shot, like every other Celtic 3-point attempt to that point, did not go in.
Smart is a role player, even if he doesn’t seem to know it. Brown is supposed to be a star, the one to step forward in circumstances such as what the Celtics faced after Tatum’s injury. Let’s just say he did not step forward.
Calling Brown’s performance abysmal almost sounds generous. He had as many turnovers as field goals. He dribbled the ball with his left knee more effectively than he did with his left hand. He reminded us, yet again, that his value is marginal when his shot isn’t falling. He’s a poor passer and an easily distracted defensive player.
Pardon the Lakers callback, but remember when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed Game 6 of the 1980 Finals with an ankle injury, and rookie Magic Johnson picked up the slack with 42 points? Well, no one is asking Brown to be Magic. But Jamaal Wilkes had 37 in that game. Brown couldn’t have been Jamaal Wilkes?
The instinct in the days after a painful loss is to want to trade half the roster and cut the rest. This is still a roster capable of winning a title, so I’m not advocating for anything rash. I am torn on whether the Celtics should offer Brown a super-max or try to trade him. I think I’m in the keep-him category, but he must commit to improving his obvious weaknesses. Will he learn? Will he adjust? Does he even know he needs to?
And will the coach, the overmatched Joe Mazzulla, climb the steep learning curve ahead of him? Of that, I’m skeptical. He runs the offense as if he read one compelling paper at the Sloan Analytics Conference three years ago about the value of 3-pointers and from then on considered the bombs-away, win-the-math-game approach the only way to run an offense.
It’s not that the Celtics settle for threes. It’s what they want to do.
When the threes aren’t falling, the answer is to keep jacking up more, rather than attacking the hoop, getting to the line, and actually having the mental benefit of seeing a shot fall through the net once in a while.
Barkley was right about their offense. There is no Plan B. And I still cannot believe Mazzulla had an injured Tatum out there trying to create off the dribble, 28 feet from the hoop, as if all were well.
The Celtics need a coach who can and will hold them accountable, who will light them up when they’re not playing the right way, and who will not let them get lackadaisical on defense. Oh, yeah, they missed Ime Udoka all right.
I don’t think Mazzulla will lose his job — such ruthlessness does not seem like Brad Stevens’s way — but he must be aided by veteran assistants, plural, who have real authority. Now that the season is over, I’m very curious as to whether players will start hinting about the difficulties they faced with a novice head coach. I’m kind of expecting it.
The offseason is going to be fascinating. The Celtics can win with what they have, but once again, they came up short in the end.
Change may have to come. They were one win from the Finals. They didn’t adjust, they didn’t learn, and they failed. Wonder what they’ll look like when they play their next game in October.
Read more about the end of the Celtics’ season
- Dan Shaughnessy: Celtics’ loss to Heat in Game 7 was a meltdown of epic proportions in Boston sports
- ‘We let the whole city down:’ With momentum on their side, the Celtics tried to make history. Instead, it’s just another bitter end.
- The Celtics finally ran out of gas in Game 7, but it never should have come to this
- Instant analysis: The Celtics’ worst habits showed up at the worst possible time, and their season is over