After most games, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum sits with both legs in a yellow ice bucket, part of his thorough recovery regimen that is always focused on what comes next. On Monday night, the yellow ice bucket was back, but only his left ankle, which he twisted on the game’s first possession, was being soaked.
There was no longer a reason to tend to anything else, because the season, suddenly and stunningly, was over. Tatum sat with his head bowed and both hands on the back of it, looking up only when teammates walked over to say their goodbyes or offer brief pep talks.
After most had left, Tatum simply clapped both hands in frustration, the sound saying more than any words could.
For the past week, the Celtics talked about how this was their chance to make history, their chance to do something no team has ever done. And when they roared back following three straight losses to start these conference finals against the Heat by winning three in a row, finishing the job felt like a formality.
But Miami would have some say-so. And on Monday night at TD Garden, the Heat gave one last punishing display of their grit and toughness. They exposed Boston’s flaws at the worst possible time, rolling to a 103-84 win that sent this talented Celtics core to yet another unfulfilling end.
“Words can’t really explain it,” Marcus Smart said.
The Celtics were seeking to become the first team in 151 tries to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. And when Derrick White’s stunning buzzer-beater won Game 6 in Miami and turned him into an instant legend, the Celtics’ road to redemption following last season’s Finals loss to the Warriors appeared almost preordained.
They returned home, where the crowd was raucous, hopeful and ready. More than a half-hour before tipoff, franchise legend Paul Pierce stood at midcourt and revved up fans who hardly needed revving. Everyone was ready to turn the night into a party.
Instead, the team crumbled, and now it’s over. The Heat, the second No. 8 seed ever to reach the Finals, advance to face the Nuggets. The Celtics will simply be left to think about what could have been.
“The hole we put ourselves in, it’s hard,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “No one’s climbed out of that hole. It was the same tonight. We couldn’t climb out of the hole we created.”
The Celtics have been one of the NBA’s most consistent teams for nearly a decade, but throughout this time they’ve been unable to take the final, most difficult step. Now, they head into another offseason facing questions about what they must do to get there, and whether this core’s potential might have been maxed out.
They appeared meek at the start of this series and were on the verge of being swept by a Miami team that needed a fourth-quarter comeback in its second play-in game just to reach the playoffs. Boston’s stumbles became a referendum on coach Joe Mazzulla, who was thrust into this role following Ime Udoka’s suspension last September.
But then the Celtics bounced back with three consecutive wins that ignited an optimism that was not even seen during last year’s Finals run. Anything seemed possible, and Miami’s inability to close out the series in Game 6 figured to be fateful.
“Sometimes you have to suffer for the things that you want,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Game 6, the only thing that we can do is sometimes you have to laugh at the things that make you cry.
“We did so many things right. … Then to come up short, that could puncture a team’s spirit. But instead, that just drove to us.”
On the first possession Monday, Tatum landed awkwardly after he was fouled on a jump-shot and twisted his left ankle. He stayed on the ground for longer than usual, and the nervous crowd began chanting his last name.
He eventually got up, stayed in, and showed no signs of a limp. But he was not the same player who started this season by barreling into the MVP conversation. He made just 5 of 13 shots and scored 14 points.
“It swelled up,” Tatum said. “and it was just frustrating that I was kind of like a shell of myself.”
His fellow All-Star, Jaylen Brown, did not fare much better. Brown has emerged as an elite scorer, but his carelessness with the ball was a consistent issue. And in Game 7 he could not stop sputtering. He made 8 of 23 shots and committed eight turnovers.
“We failed,” Brown said. “I failed, and we let the whole city down.”
Brogdon, who missed Game 6 with a forearm strain after struggling through the previous three with the same malady, returned Monday, but the Celtics probably would have been better off if he hadn’t.
Boston led by three points when he checked in midway through the first quarter. He promptly air-balled a 3-pointer by about two feet, missed a layup and threw away a pass intended for Tatum. The Celtics were outscored by 15 points during his seven-minute stint. He never returned, but the Celtics were never the same.
“He did everything he could,” Mazzulla said, “and he just didn’t have it.”
Of course, the blame for this loss goes much deeper than that. The Celtics missed their first 12 3-pointers and finished just 9 for 42 from beyond the arc. Their two worst long-range performances of the year came in the last two games.
They were able to survive the Game 6 stumbles thanks to White’s heroics. Game 7 was different.
The Heat, meanwhile, connected on 14 of 28 shots from beyond the arc, with Caleb Martin continuing his surge as the team’s unlikely hero by tallying 26 points and 10 rebounds. Series MVP Jimmy Butler added 28 points and 7 rebounds.
Miami led by 11 points at halftime and stretched its lead to 16 in the third quarter before a scoring burst by White pulled Boston within 8. But the Heat calmly answered every time, and their lead never felt in great danger.
As the final seconds of the game and the Celtics’ season ticked away, the fans who remained at TD Garden seemed conflicted about how to react. There were some polite cheers, a thank-you for a season that included more highs than lows. But there were also frustrated boos, because of the obvious belief that this team was capable of more, both on this night and beyond.
“It stings, like, incredibly,” Brown said, “and it’s hard even being up here and talking about it.”