Souza: A Look Toward Celtics Future as Players Deal with Bitter Taste of Regret

A glimpse into a post-Kyrie Era for the moral compass the franchise needs to restore Thursday focused squarely on Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

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BOSTON – Most everyone has a version of that same bad dream the Celtics experienced this season. The one where you are falling, sliding, spinning out of control. Part of you knows it should not be this way, and does not have to be this way, but in the moment there seems to be nothing that can be done about it. All you can do is be a spectator to your own nightmare.

The Celtics woke up Thursday morning to the realization that this season wasn’t simply that recurring bad dream ahead of a fresh awakening. They arrived at Auerbach Center to the stark truth that all of the hopes and aspirations of championships and parades dating back a year, or more, had been lost in a haze of falling, sliding and spinning out of control they could never correct. Eighty-two regular season games, and another nine in the playoffs, assuring themselves that they would find a way to fix it before it was too late had passed them by without them ever shaking free of the nightmare.

There was disappointment at the end result of a conference semifinals five-game blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. There might have even been some sense of relief that a long, sometimes torturous, journey had come to a merciful end. But for the players who chose to speak to the media following team exit interviews, there was one overriding sentiment:

Regret.

“There were times we were frustrated with ourselves, for sure,” Marcus Smart said. “But there were times when we did see that (promise). We had glimpses. That’s what kept us very optimistic was those times.

“If you ask anybody on the team, we wish we could do it over, and just wipe this out of our minds.”

Only there was no replay button on Guest Street for a year that started with the highest of expectations and ended in a puddle of disjointed ineffectiveness.

“We just didn’t have the fortitude, when the tough times hit, to push through,” Jaylen Brown allowed. “We started reverting back to everything that happened during the year, and the emotions that were flying during the year when those tough times hit. In reality, we were in every game up to a certain point. Then when we hit a wall, we kind of just fell apart.”

Aron Baynes called the season one of “disappointing unfulfillment” and no one could challenge that on Thursday. Three All-Stars, two recent top-three picks, veteran role players, layers of talent at every position, and one of the great young coaching minds in the game added up to a mix that should have been the perfect culmination of years of careful planning and asset management, yet turned into a hodgepodge of conflicting ambitions, priorities and egos.

Among the myriad euphemisms used to describe it in recent days, the one, true final assessment was that the whole thing was a failure.

“We obviously didn’t get the result we wanted,” Gordon Hayward said. “So we weren’t all on the same page. I think that’s just how it is. Some of that is just on us.”

“It was a letdown,” Brown concluded. “There is nothing more to say. Especially knowing the city we play for – Boston, and what everyone is expecting from people who play in a Celtics uniform. The expectation was a banner or nothing. And we came up with nothing. Definitely a letdown for the Celtics fan base. We apologize for that.”

The biggest question heading into the offseason is whether this is the end of the line for this version of the Celtics, or whether something can be salvaged from all that went into the construction of the 2018-19 model that stalled out of the lot, and never really got running as advertised, at least not for very long.

While Smart called blaming Kyrie Irving’s lack of leadership for the team’s ultimate struggles “a bullshit statement” on Thursday, the face of the franchise’s own disengagement for much of the second half of the season – and especially the excruciating final four straight playoff losses – left the impression with most that he is ready to skip town as a free agent on July 1.

Beyond that, it becomes a matter of judging whether this team needs more of a reboot or a full reconfiguration to restore its legitimate standing as an NBA Finals contender.

“I think we’re still building,” offered Brown, who may have clashed most with Irving in the rift between old guys and young guys this season, but showed class in not taking the bait to criticize the star Thursday in the aftermath of Irving’s demise as franchise forerunner. “I wouldn’t say a reset. It’s obviously not my decision. There are some great components here to build on. I don’t think we just throw everything, throw the team, away.”

While much can still change between whimpering finishing to the season and any decision Irving and the Celtics will make around July 1, a glimpse into a post-Kyrie Era for the moral compass the franchise needs to restore Thursday focused squarely on Brown and Smart. There was Brown taking the high road and, once again, displaying his maturity and growth as a potential cornerstone leader, and Smart proudly, once again, brandishing his heart on his sleeve as he defended Irving, and yearned for one more chance to get this whole thing right.

“We wish we could start over right now and do things differently from the beginning,” Smart declared. “But I definitely want another crack at it.”

A new day awaits not far in the future for Brown, Smart, Jayson Tatum, ideally Al Horford and Baynes, most likely Hayward, perhaps Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier, and the rest holdovers from this year’s team who should make up next year’s squad.

Both Brown and Smart said Thursday when that day comes they will attempt to learn from these missteps to avoid the sense of regret that stung so deep as they walked out of the practice facility for the final time this season on Thursday.

“I just feel like we didn’t give ourselves the right opportunity to do something great,” Smart said. “We all locked in. We were all on the same page. We all wanted to do it. We just couldn’t find a way to do it.”