BOSTON — Jayson Tatum’s ankle turned sideways on the first possession of Game 7, and with it, so did a Boston Celtics season that captivated enough to keep a skeptical fan base intrigued. Doubt persisted alongside it until an ending after which — the Celtics agreed — they failed in falling to the Miami Heat, 103-94.
Jaylen Brown shifted to lead playmaker and turned the ball over eight times during the most dysfunctional offensive night of the season. Boston needed to reimagine its game plan on the fly with Malcolm Brogdon trying and failing to play through a reported muscle tear in his right arm. Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Grant Williams missed their threes and a team that entered Game 4 with no margin for error slipped up three games later. A building that wanted to explode received about four minutes of excitement.
So the Celtics looked forward to next year. To improvements that could’ve come earlier this season. Opportunities squandered in recent weeks and a year ago they hope come back around. They knew a return to the Finals didn’t come guaranteed in June. They struggled to show that urgency unless pushed to the brink of elimination. Health and talent favored them, until they didn’t on Monday, and now critical questions await with a new collective bargaining agreement, contract negotiations and a coaching assessment loom.
“I’m not gonna get caught up in consistency questions and things like that. We have a good group. We had a lot going on this year,” Horford told CLNS Media after. “Our guys should hold their heads high, because we had a lot of adversity. In that locker room we dealt with a lot of things. Our group was very professional all year, worked really hard and it’s disappointing that we didn’t get our result. We failed. We failed. Because we wanted to win a championship. That was our goal. But despite that I’m very proud of that group because there was never any excuse. We went through ups and downs, but we stuck with it.”
“Right now, I feel like we want solutions, but sometimes you have to step back and look at the work … and that’s not going to happen now in the heat of the moment … I think we have to look at it, everybody will look at it individually and I’m sure our management will assess things and we’ll go from there.”
The Heat began the game as the tight team, missing 5-of-6 shots, Brown blocking a Caleb Martin put-back attempt and Gabe Vincent lost the ball out-of-bounds. The Celtics led 7-2, but Tatum missed a layup and stood to the side as Brown assumed control of the offense. Boston handed the wheel to its No. 2 option, and the offense drove off the road.
The Celtics finished the night 28-for-77 (36.4%) and 9-for-42 (21.4%) from deep, posting their two worst three-point shooting games in the final two nights of the season. They turned the ball over 15 times, Brown committing half while shooting 10 more times than Tatum. Tatum passed the ball out of attacking position midway through the first quarter playing hot potato with Derrick White.
“We shot 21% from three, defense was still there,” Joe Mazzulla said. “(Tatum) tried to play through (the injury) as best as he could. One of the best locker rooms I’ve been a part of, the guys cared, they gave it everything they had. That’s the most important thing to take from this. Obviously, we didn’t achieve our goal, we didn’t win … but it’s not because the guys didn’t have a sense of togetherness, character and just who they are as people.”
Brown lost the ball on the drive and allowed an outlet that sparked a 35-point Jimmy Butler effort on the fast break. White cheated away from Caleb Martin, who hit an early three and scorched the Celtics for 26 points and narrowly lost east finals MVP voting, 5-4, to Butler.
Boston finished the first quarter with 15 points and shot 0-for-10 from three. Plays later, Brogdon bailed off the ball after his third miss, Tatum caught the ball, tried a crossover and dribbled off his foot. Haywood Highsmith scored another breakout basket and Mazzulla called timeout. Gabe Vincent, Kyle Lowry and Martin hit additional threes against an undisciplined Boston defense that continued to cheat away from shooters. Butler became a passer. Bam Adebayo struggled against the packed lane, but his teammates picked him up.
“(Defense) was the issue,” Brogdon said. “This is a team, last year, that prided themselves on defense. I think defense was their calling card, and I think this year, offense was our calling card. I don’t think you win championships with a better offense than you have a defense. Pretty much, we were the best offensive team in the league … but defensively, I thought we had the versatility, I thought we had the talent defensively, but any given night we would just let go of the rope and have a lot of breakdowns on that end.”
Tatum’s struggled to do so, as he hobbled and looked like a diversion at times after the injury. Brown’s run atop the offense transitioned to White after halftime when the Celtics trailed by 11 points. He drove downhill into free throws, his floater and an and-one finish.
After Brown missed a three and almost lost the ball in the lane twice, dumping the ball out to Tatum for a bailout three and White a floater, White snuck underneath the defense in prime position to cut Miami’s lead to six points. He right foot slid as he pivoted underneath the rim. Travel.
“It was just frustrating that I was a shell of myself,” Tatum said.
Butler hit a three. Tatum recovered too slowly to Martin on a jump shot. The Heat cut off the Celtics’ comeback quarter and regained a 10-point lead. Martin and Butler fed each other on a 7-0 run into the fourth quarter on Brown turnovers. Sam Hauser soon entered the game for his first real minutes all series after White exited with a knee injury. Payton Pritchard arrived soon after. Roughly 90 seconds later — the starters exited.
Realization arrived slowly in the locker room. Horford hugged Brown, Tatum and Blake Griffin in the locker room nearly 30 minutes after the game. Robert Williams III and Grant Williams exited quickly. Smart almost reflexively said the Celtics would watch the film. The only game later this week will feature Denver and Miami.
“See where we need to improve,” Smart said. “And go out there and do it. We’ve been doing this for a long time, a lot of us have, and that’s the beauty of it. We get another chance. We’re blessed … we get another chance next year and we get to go start, obviously not the way that we wanted, but we get to go start to figure out what we need to do next year … me, I gotta continue to work on my outside shot, continue to give these guys some avenues to pass to and just continue to be me. Continue to lead, continue to be vocal and continue to lead by example.”
The Celtics lost their opportunity by losing their defensive identity, by not acknowledging and solving issues earlier in the season and playoffs. Mazzulla’s belief in the three ball dwindled as the team found no alternatives aside from offensive rebounding. The Heat boxed out more aggressively.
Boston’s game plan didn’t evolve, despite Brown’s inability to leverage the same inside-out activity on offense Tatum typically does. He finished in the 22nd percentile of on-off net rating (-6.2) compared to Tatum landing in the 78th percentile (+4.7).
“Just a terrible game,” Brown said. “When my team needed me most. J.T. hurt his ankle, first play of the game … he couldn’t move out there, it was tough for him. My team turned to me to make plays, and I came up short. I failed. It’s tough. I give credit to Miami, but just a terrible job.”
Players acknowledged the difficulty of the Ime Udoka firing, Mazzulla’s ascension within one day of training camp and individual shortcomings. They looked forward to a return to defense next year. All of those things could’ve been addressed earlier to avoid them rearing their head in the most important game of the year. Now, next season awaits with whatever hope they can alleviate those concerns over a summer.
Otherwise, change, something this core didn’t deal with much of on the roster since 2019’s free agency departures awaits a group whose fatigue looked beyond the end of a playoff run. Brown took long pauses between his answers.
“I don’t really know how to answer that question right now, to be honest,” Brown said, asked about his future in Boston. “My thought process is take it one day at a time, focus on getting better, focus on what the future holds and see where we are from there.”