As soon as the pain subsides, the Celtics will look back on this season and feel good about their progress. Yet the six-game series with the Hawks exposed a number of flaws that have to be addressed in the offseason.
In his second playoff series, coach Brad Stevens learned some difficult lessons from Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer about between-game adjustments. For the second consecutive year, the opposing playoff coach devised a defense to put the clamps on Isaiah Thomas and Stevens was unable to counter with a method to set him free.
Thomas showed he is one of the emerging stars in the NBA, but opposing teams also realized that and planned accordingly. Thomas has shot 37.6 percent from the field and 25 percent from the 3-point arc (16 for 64) in 10 career playoff games, all with the Celtics.
What Thomas learned this year during the postseason is invaluable. Many players talk about how much they would flourish on the biggest stage, how they wish they played for a team good enough to place them in the position to annually perform under playoff pressure.
Yet thriving under those circumstances is a different challenge. Thomas understands he has to improve his playmaking.
“You can’t do it on your own, that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned,” he said. “There’s no way you can do it on your own. From the first guy to pick up a basketball to 2016, nobody can do it on your own. And how hard it really is in playoff games. It’s not easy.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to not have this feeling again because it really hurt me. I’m going to use that as motivation to get better and work on my flaws and make those into my strengths, and I promise I’ll be back better than ever next year.”
The rest of the Celtics should follow Thomas’s lead and strive to improve this summer.
The Celtics are no longer upstarts. They have established themselves as a factor under Stevens, separating themselves from the final years of the Doc Rivers era when the roster was aging and in decline.
When president of basketball operations Danny Ainge replenished the roster with younger players, time was needed to develop chemistry. But that process occurred faster than expected. So the expectations were higher on the younger core, such as Jae Crowder, who essentially played on one leg against the Hawks and shot 27.8 percent from the field.
Crowder needs to improve his perimeter shooting, as the Hawks invited him to shoot from the 3-point arc, where he made just 24.4 percent of his attempts in the series.
“We’ve just got to keep chipping at it, keep getting better. Of course it’s only going to be one team to have a successful year, and that’s when you hold that trophy up,” Crowder said. “So until we do that, it’s not a successful season. We are going to keep building, keep working, that’s all I’ve got to say about it. It will drive me to work harder, for sure. It will drive me to be a different player than I am today, so we use it as motivation to move on.”
Stevens also has to improve. Is he a championship-caliber coach? He appears headed in that direction, but some of the lineups he used during the Atlanta series were curious.
Some of that can be blamed on roster limitations. Some of the players who were expected to produce just didn’t.
Kelly Olynyk made one shot in the series. Jared Sullinger couldn’t defend Paul Millsap and couldn’t score, either, shooting 31 percent in the series. Stevens relied on younger players who weren’t quite ready for the moment, and they let him down.
Stevens hasn’t reached Gregg Popovich level yet, and perhaps this will serve as a benchmark moment to someday approach that. Three years into a six-year contract, Stevens has enjoyed success, but like the rest of his roster there is room for improvement.
“We learned a lot through this playoff series, but one of the things that I learned is we’ve got to get better. And you know what? That starts with me,” Stevens said. “I’ve got to get better, and then I think each of our players will look at that accountably as well and we’re all going to be better the next time we take the court.”
BACK IN THE GAME
Thibodeau takes Timberwolves job
It’s funny how perceptions change in a year. When Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls agreed to part ways last May, team management distributed a memo criticizing his coaching style and his grating approach with players.
The Bulls then hired Fred Hoiberg, believing his style would translate well with players such as Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, and Pau Gasol. The Bulls, mired in injuries and inconsistent all season, missed the playoffs.
And during the Bulls’ dissension, Thibodeau’s stock began to rise again. Suddenly, he became the most desired coach — besides maybe Luke Walton — on the market, and last week Thibodeau was named president of basketball operations and coach of the Timberwolves.
The Timberwolves also brought in former Jazz, Knicks, and Spurs executive Scott Layden to be general manager. Thibodeau has immense talent on a roster that underachieved at times and flourished in others, such as a late-season win at Golden State.
A young core already has been built in 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, likely 2015-16 Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, two-time Slam Dunk champion Zach LaVine, gifted point guard Ricky Rubio, and scoring reserve Shabazz Muhammad.
“The big thing for me is I don’t want my players looking backward and I don’t want them looking ahead,” Thibodeau said. “I want us doing the right things; I want them doing them at a championship level, right from the beginning. I don’t want to put a lid on what we can do or can’t do. I want to prepare like we are going to be [in the playoffs].”
The Timberwolves have undergone a series of rebuilding efforts since Kevin McHale traded Kevin Garnett to the Celtics in 2007. There was the Al Jefferson-led resurgence; the Kevin Love era; the Anthony Bennett stretch; and then the current Wiggins-Towns crew.
There have been seven coaches in Minnesota since the Timberwolves last reached the playoffs in 2003-04: Flip Saunders, McHale, Dwane Casey, Randy Wittman, Kurt Rambis, Rick Adelman, and Sam Mitchell.
“I can’t speak for the [other coaches]. I had an opportunity to be around some great coaches,” Thibodeau said. “I want a team that’s committed to playing for each other. If we can do that, I’ll be very proud. That’s what we strive for. I’m excited about that challenge.”
Thibodeau has earned a reputation as one of the better defensive coaches in the league since his days as an assistant with the Celtics. The Bulls won games with their physicality on defense. That will be a challenge in Minnesota. The Timberwolves finished tied for 23d in the NBA this season in points allowed and 28th in opponents’ field goal percentage.
The Timberwolves are young, so the issue has been defensive technique, and that is Thibodeau’s specialty. But he has to be able to do what Mitchell couldn’t in a small window, help Wiggins, Towns, and others improve enough to become an immediate factor in the Western Conference.
“I’d like to think I’m well balanced,” Thibodeau said. “You have to strive to be in the top 10 in efficiency in both offense and defense. Defensively, we’ve got a lot of room for improvement. That’s an area we do have to correct. You have a young core that has shown some very positive signs so far. Challenge everybody to be complete in terms of both sides of the ball. When you look at the things Karl has done as a first-year player, very, very impressive, but there’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of room for growth for him.
“I know firsthand from his rookie year how hard [Wiggins] was to stop. He makes it look easy. I think there’s another level for him to get to. I think his rebounding and defense can go to another level. Zach, I think he’s come a long way. The 3-point shooting for us as an offense has to improve. We have to put a lot of work into that.”
Thibodeau appears rejuvenated. The Bulls didn’t help his reputation by labeling him a coach that couldn’t develop strong bonds with players because of his rigid personality. Thibodeau could have lobbied for the New Orleans job but instead decided to use the past 12 months to take a deep breath, dabble in TV, and visit several NBA teams to observe their tactics.
“Last year was a great year. I visited teams in September and October. I visited 13 teams,” he said. “You have a much broader view on everything. It gave me a chance to reflect, recharge, and learn. The recharging part was important to me as well, spend time with my family in Connecticut, Thanksgiving and Christmas, things I haven’t done in 20 years.”
And given his work in Chicago led to a more lucrative opportunity in Minnesota, Thibodeau viewed his days with the Bulls positively.
“When I look back, I learned a lot from that whole situation. Most of my experience there was very, very positive,” he said. “ Jerry [Reinsdorf] took a chance on me, and I appreciate that.”
Clippers quickly in world of hurt
It was a crushing week for the Clippers, who were considered a dark horse to reach the Western Conference finals, especially with the knee injury to Warriors star Stephen Curry.
At full strength, the Clippers easily beat the Trail Blazers in the first two games of their first-round series. They lost a fairly close Game 3, before misfortune struck when Chris Paul broke his right hand when he got it caught in the jersey of Portland’s Gerald Henderson, and Blake Griffin aggravated his quadriceps injury minutes later.
Griffin was ruled out for the rest of the postseason, while Paul was said to be out indefinitely. After being eliminated Friday night by the Trail Blazers, the Clippers are faced with a quandary in the offseason. Does Doc Rivers make major changes with the roster or allow the same crew to return for another run?
Rivers was forced to play motivator, encouraging his team to move forward after the injuries. It was a difficult year after hopes were so high when DeAndre Jordan changed his free agent decision and decided to return to Los Angeles.
Then Griffin injured his quadriceps and punched a team employee during his rehabilitation. The Clippers never were whole, and they were hoping Griffin would quickly return to form after coming back for the final two weeks of the regular season. But he never was truly healthy.
“It is daunting, as far as that we know it is a challenge,” Rivers said last week. “I tell my guys all the time, ‘If you want to do stuff that is great, it should be hard. Embrace hard. Embrace the difficulties of it.’ Obviously, we did not plan on any of this happening.
“I talk to them all the time. You’ve got to have great resolve. I think our guys have that. I think they showed that in spurts [in Game 5], but you can’t lose your will. When things are going great, great. When things are going poorly, which they do at times on the road, you’ve got to play through that and have great resolve, and I think our guys do that.”
Terry Stotts wasn’t named Coach of the Year, but he remarkably led the Trail Blazers to the playoffs.
“I think they have played wonderfully. I think they have played better defense than they did in the regular season, for sure,” Rivers said. “Offensively, they really haven’t played great, but they haven’t had to. We haven’t played great offense, but a lot of that is because of their defense.
“I think they are very athletic. They are long. They are versatile. Any team with two scorers, I said that before the playoff series, it makes it a hard series. Two guys that can score. They have two guys that can create points after the play is over. That makes them a good team in the playoffs.”
The Clippers have the league’s second-highest payroll at $97 million and will likely have to find replacements for Jamal Crawford and Jeff Green, both of whom will be free agents.
The job of Pelicans general manager Dell Demps could be in jeopardy as executive vice president Mickey Loomis still has not discussed Demps’s status, and Demps has not met with reporters to discuss the team’s future. The Pelicans were one of the more disappointing teams in the NBA this season, ravaged by injuries and a disheartening start. Demps built the roster, adding underachieving Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans, and making a draft-night deal to acquire point guard Jrue Holiday, who has mostly been injured during his New Orleans tenure. If Demps doesn’t return, look for Louisiana native and former Pistons GM Joe Dumars to be a prime candidate for the job. Dumars has wanted to return to an NBA front office since leaving the Pistons in 2014 after the team’s ownership change. Dumars put together Detroit’s 2003-04 championship team as well as the teams that reached six consecutive Eastern Conference finals . . . Former Celtics guard Nate Robinson may have played his last NBA game, but that doesn’t mean he’s done with professional sports. The former college football player has aspirations of playing professionally. Robinson played defensive back at the University of Washington as a freshman but gave up the sport to concentrate on basketball. There are those around the Huskies’ program who say Robinson would have made the NFL if he had stuck with football. Robinson is 31, so the chances of catching on with a team may be minimal. But Robinson lasted in the NBA for 10-plus seasons because of his freakish athleticism . . . The injury to Paul gave Austin Rivers a chance to display his skills as a starter and perhaps increase his free agent stock this summer. Rivers signed a two-year deal with the Clippers with a player option for the second at $3.34 million. Rivers would likely garner a healthy raise from that on the market, depending on if he’s part of the Clippers’ plans . . . John-Blair Bickerstaff has no chance to remain the Rockets’ coach, but he should not be judged off his first head-coaching experience. He was asked to lead a franchise as dysfunctional as there is in the NBA, with players who have little chemistry or desire to play together. Only a free fall by the Jazz ensured the Rockets would make the playoffs, and their first-round series with the Warriors further exposed Houston’s need for major change. Bickerstaff didn’t deserve such a fate.
After winning the MVP award and an NBA championship last season, Stephen Curry submitted an even better showing in 2015-16. The seven-year veteran made more than 50 percent of his field goals, 40 percent of his 3-pointers, and 90 percent of his free throws. Here’s a look at those who accomplished the feat (minimum 100 free throw attempts):
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.