Doubt echoed through the halls of TD Garden as the Celtics trudged their way back to the locker room after falling 113-101 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. They now stared a 3-1 deficit in the face after suffering their third straight defeat and second straight loss at home to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. These same Bucks who just a year ago couldn’t even hang with the Celtics B-Team en-route to a first round exit.
It couldn’t end like this. This team was supposed to reap the benefits of adding 2 All-Stars back after staging an improbable playoff run which ended at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This team was supposed to flourish under boy-wonder Brad Stevens, one of the brightest minds in our game today. The same coach who brought two-straight underdogs all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
This team was going to come back right? How epic would that be. Shades of the 2004 Red Sox who shocked the world as they stormed all the way back from down 3-0 to the mighty Yankees. It would be all too fitting for a city who seems to always have the last laugh when it comes to these type of things. Kevin Millar had the last laugh when he told Dan Shaughnessy “Don’t let us win today” after the writer blasted the Red Sox in the paper as he referred to them as a “pack of frauds” before they staged their comeback. Kyrie Irving seemed to take a page out of Millar’s book as he told the media all season long to just wait for the playoffs and everything would sort itself out. Would this be the recipe for success that the Sox figured out way back in 04′?
Kyrie even doubled down on his sentiment after shooting 7-22 in a Game 4 loss that basically decided the Celtics fate.
“The 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m just that great of a shooter.” is what Kyrie echoed in his postgame press conference. Maybe he was just playing all of us, maybe this team would turn it around on a dime and rip off 3 straight in the most unexpected way possible.
Before we get too nostalgic…They didn’t come back.
They didn’t catch lightning in a bottle and they went home for good just 2 days later. This time, it was an even bigger beating as the Bucks ran away with it on their home floor by a score of 116-91. The Celtics were the frauds, and they were everything they said they weren’t all season long.
How’d Irving do in this one? If you can squint, you can see he went 6-21. So much for 30 shots and so much for being “that great of a shooter”. All of this coming off of a season that was more defined by his tone off of the court rather than his play on it. Scarred by the dark cloud around his impending free agency and rumors swirling day in and day out over where he would bolt to in the offseason. One warning when reflecting on this Celtic season: Don’t get it twisted, Irving isn’t the only one at fault, he’s just the guy taking the most heat.
How about Gordon Hayward, who stumbled out of the gate and could never really get it going all season long. The playoffs turned out to be a microcosm of how his season went as a whole.
Round 1 Vs. Indiana: 12.3 PPG 5.0 RPG 1.8 APG 48.6% FG 44.4% 3FG 100% FT
Round 2 Vs. Milwaukee: 7.4 PPG 3.2 RPG 3.0 APG 34.3% FG 33.3% 3FG 100% FT
Right when it seemed like he had turned a corner, he took another few steps back. The first year back from an injury as catastrophic as Hayward’s is always a roller-coaster of ups and downs but this season had different expectations. 60 wins and a spot in The Finals were attainable and the Celtics didn’t have time to take it slow with him. He was thrown to the wolves at the start of the year and later was relegated to the bench after the Celtics suffered the consequences of rushing a player back too quickly.
Rash decisions, like the one to start Hayward from the jump, were a theme throughout the season. Brad Stevens owned up to it as he sat in front of the media after Game 5 and did something most head coaches would not do.
“I did a bad job.” is what Stevens iterated as he answered questions from reporters after his season had just ended. “At the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find it’s best fit together, that’s on you.”
While saying it’s all his fault lets the players off the hook for their subpar play, it shows a lot that he would take the fall for his team like that. It’s admirable that he was able to look at a group of people who were looking for the answers and tell them that he doesn’t have them. It also shows a lot that such a lauded coach couldn’t even come close to figuring this team out. He said it himself, he never was able to find a rhythm with his lineups, and he never was able to truly harness the talent this team had.
Guys like Terry Rozier felt like they were short-changed and that their talent was being thrown to the side for others who didn’t deserve it. Rozier wasn’t the only one who sacrificed this season. While he’s handled things like a professional, it’s hard to not believe Jaylen Brown felt this way as well when he was moved to the bench after a sub-par start to his season. Supposed future Celtic great Jayson Tatum’s role even diminished as he saw his touches dwindle with the return of the team’s two biggest stars just 4 months after posterizing LeBron on one of the game’s biggest stages. It seemed like the only way he could make his mark on the game was by becoming a black hole whenever he received the basketball. Ditto goes for Rozier as he seemed to press and force things most of the time he was on the court in a contract year.
In a season marred by dysfunction and an inability to gel, there were still a few bright spots. Al Horford had another productive season as he was one of the only constants on a given night on both ends. Marcus Morris was dancing around a 50-40-90 season for much of the first half of the year and was one of the only Celtics to show up during the playoffs. Last but not least, Marcus Smart landed himself on his first career All-Defensive First Team and proved the Celtics were wise to invest a 4 year 52-million-dollar deal in him last summer.
All in all, it didn’t workout, and the Celtics are left with a feeling of “what could have been”. It ended up being the perfect storm for a vast underachievement. This team could look a whole lot different next season and it all starts with the team’s biggest star, Kyrie Irving.
Reports have been suggesting Irving’s career in Boston is all but over and that the Celtics are looking for alternative plans if the 6-time All-Star decides to depart. While he very well could end up back in green next season, the NBA off-season is like no other and anything can happen.
If he decides to come back, the Celtics see themselves in a familiar position as the underdogs. The team nobody believes in and the one that will have the most to prove nest season off of such a flub of a year. On the other hand, if he does decide to pack his bags for either New York or Los Angeles, the Celtics see themselves in a less familiar position, uncertainty. Do they build around Tatum/Brown? Is Al staying around? What do they do with Gordon Hayward? Who is the point guard of the future?
All of the answers to these questions are up in the air and we’ll find out the ultimate verdict in 8-12 weeks. No matter what happens, this off-season is one of the most crucial in Celtics’ history. Especially after one of the biggest disappointments for a storied franchise defined by banners, not losers.