The Celtics bombed going bombs away. Clang, clang, clang went the season and a Tiffany Blue Box-worthy championship shot because rookie coach Joe Mazzulla and his team couldn’t or wouldn’t push away from the 3-point shot.
The Celtics and Mazzulla doubled down on threes, and it resulted in their lowest point total of the season in the biggest game of the season. It hastened the end of their season via a 103-84 loss to the Baltimore Ravens of basketball, the Miami Heat, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday night in a Causeway Street crucible.
Stubbornness is the Celtics’ toxic trait, exemplified by their 34-year-old coach who crosses the line between conviction and obstinance. It’s what allowed them to commendably push the series to Game 7 after burrowing a 3-0 hole. It’s also what cost them Game 7 and a chance at a championship. All championship teams possess the capability to win in multiple fashions, which is why the Celtics aren’t a championship team.
It took a divine putback from Derrick White to win Game 6 when the Celtics hit a season-low seven threes (7 for 35). You would think that might lead to some sort of contingency plan for Game 7. Nope.
“I think just not shooting the ball well had an effect on us throughout the game,” said Jayson Tatum, who turned his ankle on the first possession, an omen. “And it just kind of snowballed.”
The Celtics missed a chance to make history as the first team to rally from a 3-0 deficit as they missed 33 of their 42 3-point attempts, including a soul-sapping 0-for-12 start. They finished the final two games of the series 16 of 77 from deep (20.8 percent).
Mazzulla was asked about the Celtics’ loss of defensive identity by the Globe’s Gary Washburn. His reply: “Shot 21 percent from three. Defense was still there.”
He was asked the natural follow-up: Is this team too reliant upon the three? His response was infuriating and telling: “No.”
Joe of Arc couldn’t bring himself to admit he was wrong. He would rather contradict himself than admit a mistake. Curt answers are one thing. But this was skull-imploding obduracy.
The Celtics were too reliant on the three and never had an answer for Miami’s extended zone defense. They lost to a lesser-talented team. Facts.
Mazzulla had a tough job picking up the pieces of the Ime Udoka imbroglio right before the start of training camp, inheriting an out-of-the-box championship contender. He did a commendable job overall, earning an extension. He has the unconditional backing of two of the most important people in the organization, president of basketball operations Brad Stevens and Tatum.
But his attitude is reminiscent of the Kanye West song “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” Earlier this season, he called 3-pointers taken “the most important stat in basketball,” worshipping at the analytics altar without exception.
His 3-point dogma — 42 of the Green’s 82 Game 7 shots were threes — fueled his team’s demise. Here’s some math: Three is better than two, but two is still better than zero.
Also, all season long Mazzulla was defensive about not calling timeouts to stem the opponent’s momentum, a strategy fit for Zen Master Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich, but not a neophyte coach.
He took that philosophy into the playoffs right up until he didn’t call a timeout during a 46-25 third quarter that cost the Celtics Game 1. Suddenly, he was banging timeouts like a conventional coach the rest of the series. It’s not that hard if you’re not so hard-headed.
Expect Mazzulla to get the NBA equivalent of adult supervision with an experienced head coach as his lead assistant next season.
Having Mazzulla as the coach is like having Marcus Smart as the bench boss. The team always tried its hardest, always deserved kudos, always was at the whim of a make/miss league, and never had to publicly own its shortcomings in execution or strategy.
If you listened to Mr. Don’t Let Us Get One, you would’ve thought the Celtics were getting medals of honor for forcing a Game 7.
“We put ourselves in a hole down 0-3 and we fought our [butt] off,” said Smart. “We just came up short. Obviously, we didn’t reach our goal, but I’m proud of the way we came back and we just didn’t give up. We kept fighting. That’s all you can ask for from this group.”
Uh, no, you can ask for more. The Celtics never played their best basketball at any point during the playoffs. They never strung it together after their 21-5 NBA Finals revenge tour to start the season.
They lost three games on their home floor with home court in this series. Smart and Jaylen Brown, who had as many turnovers as baskets in an 8-for-23, 19-point effort that capped a horrendous series, are now 1-4 in Eastern Conference finals.
We can ask that for a second straight season we don’t have to watch the opponent hold a trophy presentation on the parquet. We can ask that trophies named for Bob Cousy and Larry Bird aren’t awarded to a Pat Riley team.
The Celtics’ culture of false accomplishment was being replaced by one of accountability by Udoka. Along with their defensive one, that identity was lost.
“I think this was a team in the last year that prided themselves on defense,” said Malcolm Brogdon, rendered ineffective by a torn tendon in his shooting arm. “I think defense was our calling card.
“This year offense was our calling card. I don’t think you win championships … with a better offense than you have a defense.”
More outsider views might be what the Celtics need. It’s what Udoka provided.
In fairness to Mazzulla and his live-three-or-die philosophy, the Celtics have endured the same lapses and collapses under three straight coaches. Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Al Horford have been party to them.
Stevens was at the helm when the Celtics blew Game 7 against LeBron James in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, shooting just 7 for 39 from three.
The Golden State East identity isn’t working. The Warriors are the only team to win championships the way the Celtics are playing. The Dubs have two of the elite shooters in NBA history in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The Celtics don’t.
Something has to change, either the team’s three-for-all mentality, personality, personnel, or coach.
The Celtics were a team built on basketball’s ultimate shortcut, the 3-pointer.
But there are no shortcuts to a championship.
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