The Celtics are in their offseason, and many would argue it was a premature departure based on their squad calibre and quality of opposition faced.
It has been a hat-trick of Conference Final appearances in Brad Stevens’ seven year tenure thus far, none of them bearing the fruits of a consequential NBA Finals appearance.
Any other set of circumstances in a different time may have raised questions about occurrences on and off the court. Not this time. Boston’s failure this season if anything was a sign of progress. Not many teams can retract and know they can go again with a championship-calibre side in a few years time. This is not a time to panic in Boston, but a time to evaluate.
How they got there, and who got them there
Regular season: The C’s posted an impressive .667 win percentage and 48-26 record, in turn finishing third seed in the East. Before the restart in the bubble, the Celtics were the only team from their respective conference to make the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency. The main highlights included marquee wins over the LA franchises, including a blowout 32 point win over the Lakers, plus a 10 game winning streak after an opening day loss against the 76ers.
Playoffs, First Round: It was in the first round where the famous rivalry of Philadelphia and Boston was reignited, but the Celtics would triumph in emphatic fashion. The brooms were brought out against a helpless Joel Embiid without partner Ben Simmons, and the result condemned Brett Brown to his last game for Philly, who will now be replaced by the beloved Doc Rivers. Games at the Garden next season will be interesting, to say the least…
Playoffs, Semi-finals: The next round couldn’t have differed more from the last. A series that went the distance against the reigning champions in the Toronto Raptors tested the capabilities of the Celtics roster and is debatable whether the gruelling match up had a lasting affect on the fitness of Bard Stevens’ team going into the Miami series. Marcus Smart‘s impressive clutch block in the fourth quarter on Norman Powell proved decisive, along with Robert Williams‘ six rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench.
Playoffs, Conference Finals: Miami proved to be Boston’s undoing. The squad at Erik Spoelstra’s disposal had a fine mix of experience with the likes of Jimmy Butler combined with superstar youth in Bam Adebayo. More on that though later…
Jayson Tatum: Many would argue that this was it – the season Tatum truly announced himself as one of the best in the league. A surefire MVP candidate in years to come, the forward is only in his third year in the NBA; and his development in wake of last year’s postseason disappointment has been stark. With some imperfections to iron out, Tatum’s two-way style combined with his playmaking gives the front office no other choice but to offer the max contract extension.
The future is bright ☘️
For only the second time in franchise history, 3 Celtics averaged 20+ PPG in a season. Last time it was done was Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Bailey Howell in 1966-67.@TDBank_US | #HumanBehindTheNumber pic.twitter.com/pAzzQkbYOK
Jaylen Brown: The wingplay on display from Brown has caught the eye of many in what is his fourth year at TD Garden. His shooting and defensive capabilities against the likes of Pascal Siakam and possibly to a lesser extent the formidable Bam Adebayo in the postseason has earned plaudits from across the NBA.
Kemba Walker: Walker’s efficiency right up to the playoffs helped the Celtics earn the third seed, but thereafter it became more evident of the guard’s inexperience past the first round. He has brought an air of reassurance after Kyrie Irving‘s departure and brought a new dimension in respects to defensive authority, along with his attacking balance.
What went wrong against Miami
The first thing to note when analysing the series, that’s importance cannot and most likely will not be understated by teams next season, is Miami’s zonal setup. Going up against Erik Spoelstra’s zone combated the Celtics offense throughout the series in an unprecedented fashion. Employing a 2-3 formation with their forwards leading the line, the Heat reaped the benefits of lack of dribble and drive attacks from the Celtics with more capable defensive qualities in the likes of Jae Crowder. Their wings saw the the use of reactive stunts in order to cover for teammates as a time efficient tactic. Duncan Robinson as well as rookie Tyler Herro were instrumental in doing this.
Forward Gordon Hayward suffered an agonising ankle injury in the first game of the first round that kept him out of the majority of the playoffs. His 50% field goal percentage in the regular season would be a miss for any side, and was only reintroduced back onto the court in Game 3 of the Conference Finals. His absence became more instrumental and apparent with hindsight, as the Celtics romped to a blowout lead in Game 3, with the opening two losses only faltering to single and double possessions respectively. The 30-year-old’s return also aided in the Celtics eventually working out and wearing down ‘the zone’ in a war of attrition as the series drew to a close. By then, the damage had mostly been done.
Game 6 saw Bam Adebayo come to life- charging the paint on offence after feeling aggrieved that the Heat’s second loss of the series in Game 5 fell on his shoulders. The young centre outperformed most throughout the series, and will have notable inclusions on the Conference finals highlight reel including the clutch block on Tatum in Game 1. Bam’s role in the ‘pick and roll’ and his physicality in the series finale also provided opportunities as a playmaker and central to most of Miami’s attacks, unlike Tatum and Brown for Boston respectively. His dominance in the paint was also notably accentuated in the zonal defence, standing central in the back three line under the basket.
What will raise questions and eyebrows, in what is perhaps a much more ambiguous dilemma, would be how the Celtics blew the series having a fourth quarter lead in every one of their losses? Why in the clutch moments are the Celtics seizing up and seizing leads? The answer may lie in selfishness. So often the proposed solution in sticky situations in the series was individual reactionary incompetence. Brown’s understated capabilities as a shooter are often underplayed in the Celtics buildup, not seeing the ball as much as carriers like Tatum and Walker. The swingman can play more of an instrumental role in a more cohesive offensive game plan when needed most in vital times next term.
How the Celtics reacted
Brad Stevens: “I really appreciated the way that they played basketball all year. I really appreciated the way that they competed. I really appreciated the way they blocked out stuff that didn’t matter. I really appreciated the way that they inspired with their voice when they were here and before. I appreciated the way that they empowered all the different NBA employees that weren’t here, including Celtics employees and everybody else that benefited from them putting everything they had into this. And then I appreciated the way that they played and found joy and stayed together.”
Jayson Tatum: “It’s not easy, it’s tough. But if you want those expectations and you want to be that guy that’s capable of doing those things, you got to go through some tough things, some up and downs, some stuff I can learn from. I feel I can learn a lot moving forward from this season, this series. I’ll grow from it.”
Jaylen Brown: “Obviously, we feel like we underachieved.”
What comes next?
The core that can and will be built around first and foremost is coach Brad Stevens, along with his stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The fountain of youth in Massachusetts will likely be aided with a max contract rewarded to Tatum, combined with Brown’s meteoric development this past campaign. The issues of crunch-time solidity in stars like Walker and Tatum will come with time and experience, never before have such players faced the pressure in the playoffs as a focal outlet of their teams. The graph of career incline is slowly rising, six consecutive postseason appearances with three conference finals, hurdles to jump over for sure but the structure is in place.
The best of the rest in Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward does present a slight issue- both are 30 and the latter’s chequered injury history will not be of comfort to Danny Ainge and the Celtics hierarchy. Walker on the other hand had a fairly impenetrable playoffs, despite his success in replacing Kyrie Irving and being selected as an All-Star in the 2019/20 regular season. The issue of playing big minutes after return from a knee injury, combined with going up against solid defences in the Raptors and Heat would be somewhat understandable reasons in vague circumstances.
The solution? Walker’s consistency upon arrival will likely keep the one guard in Boston, but with Hayward’s position more precarious, Victor Oladipo‘s availability in Indiana may prove tempting. Oladipo’s apparent voicing of discontent at the Pacers will prick the ears of many a franchise across the NBA, and the 28-year-old would also take some of the weight off the heavy minutes load that was burdened upon the Celtics starting five given the evident discontent regarding squad depth. Danny Ainge has expressed his excitement regarding his second unit, saying that there is still a lot ‘unknown’ about the team given the limited opportunities given to those on the bench.
The possible overriding sense of disappointment for Bostonians of being so close yet again yet so far may be a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. The evidence of progress is for all to see, granted the feeling of an opportunity missed to take home the Larry O’Brien in a year of a KD-less Nets and Steph Curry missing for the Warriors will be challenging to quell. What needs to be recognised is the rebuild that Stevens has put in place after Doc Rivers‘ departure, and where the Celtics stand now as a team competing for championships with soon to be young superstars. Things are looking up.