The Celtics were full speed ahead for the NBA Finals, riding with wind in their sails until the good ship Banner 18 sank in Game 7 against the Miami Heat faster than the Lusitania. It’s still hard to fathom the fashion in which the Celtics finished their season on Memorial Day, leaving a lot of Unfinished Business.
Here are seven thoughts from the parquet postmortem:
1. I can’t think of a player in recent Boston sports history with a greater discrepancy between his reputation and his résumé than Marcus Smart. The tenacious point guard is venerated by Celtics fans for his hard-nosed play and hustle. The fallacy is that it equates to a winning player.
Smart is 1-4 in conference finals in nine playoff seasons. His 689 career games (including playoffs) are the most among Celtics players without a championship. Second is Antoine Walker at 584. It took Paul Pierce 795 career games to win his only championship, but there’s no comparison between Pierce, a Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest scorer in Celtics history, and a glorified role player.
Smart made little impact in Game 7 when the team needed a lifeline with 9 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 turnovers, plus 1-for-6 shooting from 3-point range. Your brand can’t be #winningplays when you keep losing the biggest games.
2. Smart’s air of inflated accomplishment infects and reflects the team’s attitude. Following Game 7, even recalcitrant coach Joe Mazzulla said the team “failed” because it didn’t achieve its goal. Mild-mannered Al Horford stated, “We failed.”
Meanwhile, the longest-tenured Celtic said, “It happens,” explaining the Game 7 debacle. Smart also said, “We continue to fight. That’s all you can ask for.”
No, you can ask to not go down, 3-0. You can ask to play better in a Game 7 on your floor with history awaiting. Always trying to reframe disappointments as backdoor successes is poor leadership.
3. Jaylen Brown deserves the super-max, sorry. Brown was horrendous against the Heat — 16.3 percent from 3-point range — and a train wreck in Game 7 with a career-high eight turnovers. However, the level of sentiment out there for jettisoning Brown and not giving him the five-year, $295 million super-max extension he became eligible for by earning All-NBA second-team is shocking.
It’s baffling how fast people bailed on Brown based on one game. Yes, at times he dribbles like a baby deer trying to walk for the first time, splaying himself and spraying the ball. But he has improved every year. He’s only 26 and has averaged 20 points per game or better four straight years. He was the Celtics’ leading scorer in the NBA Finals last season when Jayson Tatum was a no-show.
Brown ended up as the biggest loser of Derrick White’s miracle putback in Game 6. If the Celtics had lost, the last impression of Brown would’ve been him playing well in a crucial contest. He had 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists. Brown scored 7 points with no turnovers in that fourth quarter.
4. Speaking of Tatum, the emotional investment a segment of the Celtics fan base has in his ascension to Larry Bird level means he gets a total pass. Apparently, Tatum suffered the worst ankle injury in NBA history in Game 7. Tell it to Isiah Thomas, who lit up the Lakers in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals on a turned ankle. Oh, and Tatum also apparently had that ankle injury the entire series now.
Some Parishioners of the Parquet treat Tatum with a degree of grace that makes you believe his initials are JC, not JT.
The undisputed best player on the Celtics, Tatum shot 36.7 percent in last year’s NBA Finals. He came up short in this series too.
Tatum shot 23.4 percent from three. In the final two games, he registered 1 for 12 from deep, including 0 for 8 in Game 6. Tatum flailed in fourth quarters all series, finishing with 8 turnovers, 8 assists, and 8 baskets. He shot 34.8 percent in the fourth, including 1 for 10 from three, and netted 34 fourth-quarter points. By comparison, Bad Basketball Brown scored 28 fourth-quarter points, shooting 10 for 27 (37 percent).
5. Here’s hoping the Celtics don’t stop at Sam Cassell as a veteran coaching aide de camp to Mazzulla. The 34-year-old Mazzulla, who has a sharp mind, would benefit from having a former NBA head coach on his staff, someone who can counsel him and curb his need to mark his territory philosophically.
Watching Mazzulla this season reminded me of a discussion with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. When Tomlin took over the Steelers in 2007, he was a Tampa-2 4-3 defense disciple. The Steelers ran a 3-4 defense. Tomlin kept that in place. I asked him why. He said because it wasn’t about him. Mazzulla could take a lesson from that.
6. I don’t care what Mazzulla or Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens says, the Celtics ARE way too reliant on the three. They’ve basically become the Huck-em-up Houston Rockets of Mike D’Antoni, who never won a thing.
This postseason, 45.2 percent of the Celtics’ shots were threes, trailing only the Golden State Warriors (45.4). But more telling is that only 5.5 percent of their attempts qualified as mid-range twos, according to NBA.com, the lowest among any team that advanced beyond the first round.
The NBA Finals participants, the Heat (fourth in mid-range attempts) and the Denver Nuggets (sixth), both feature greater shot diversification than the Celtics, not a coincidence.
7. Stevens irritated some with his tone in his end-of-season press conference. He is not pessimistic or reactive by nature. He is circumspect and calm. It’s part of his Midwestern makeup. The only statement Stevens made that I take umbrage with was:
“We were 48 minutes away from doing our pregame shootaround press conference today, right, in the Finals. So there was a lot that went right, and we can’t lose sight of that.”
The Celtics were a lot closer to being eliminated in six games than they were to winning in seven. They were 0.1 away from being ousted in six. That reality should guide the offseason.
The “48 minutes away” remark sounds a bit like former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette’s infamous “more days in first place” line.
Stevens doesn’t need to blow things up, but some substantive change is needed — Smart or Malcolm Brogdon has to go — for the Celtics to turn their championship potential into a championship parade.