If we’re being honest, the Boston Celtics breathed about as much excitement as could have been reasonably expected into this series against the Brooklyn Nets.
Jayson Tatum’s thrilling 50-point night in Friday’s Game 3 made us all temporarily forget about the obvious talent disparity in this series. For a solid 48 hours, we talked ourselves into the possibility that Boston could make things even more interesting, especially with 17,226 fans cramming back inside TD Garden on Sunday night.
But that buzz wore off quickly. Kyrie Irving, despite the full-throated boos from the lathered masses, got himself going early in Game 4. The Nets' Big Three combined for 104 points to propel a Brooklyn offense that scored 79 points in the middle quarters and raced away to a 141-126 win and a 3-1 series lead.
The notion that Boston might steal more than a game in this series always seemed unlikely without Jaylen Brown. Then the Celtics lost both Kemba Walker and Robert Williams for Game 4.
Boston’s lack of depth has been on display all season. And while the Nets could lose a Jeff Green and barely miss a beat, the Celtics haven't been able to withstand even a single absence. Without three starters, they had no chance.
And, thus, the 2020-21 season could end as early as Tuesday night in Brooklyn. There is heavy lifting ahead for Danny Ainge this summer to overhaul a flawed roster that limped through a .500 season, stumbled to the 7th seed, and will bow out early in the playoffs.
There will be positives to pluck from this postseason, especially Tatum’s play. He was special in Game 3 with Synergy Sports suggesting he scored 31 of his 50 points in isolation, one of the highest numbers in modern tracking. Tatum hunted mismatches and attacked them, hitting a bevy of tough shots. Sharing the floor with two former MVPs (James Harden, Kevin Durant) and a seven-time All-Star coming off a 50/40/90 season (Irving), Tatum was still the best player on the court. Tatum needed at least one night like that.
The Nets made things more difficult in Game 4 and he still went for 40. He’ll learn from this series, his first postseason series as a lone focal point of the offense, and it will make him better when the Celtics are healthier in future playoffs.
Game 4 belonged to Irving. After looking tentative, and maybe a bit unnerved, during his first visit in front of Boston fans on Friday night, he tried to get himself going early in Game 4. Irving put up 39 points and 11 rebounds.
What happened after the game will, unfortunately, dominate the discussion. A Celtics fan tossed a water bottle at Irving as he departed the court and was arrested by Boston police. He’ll soon have a lifetime ban from TD Garden. It was an unacceptable act and a frustrating one after 17,225 other fans seemingly behaved themselves.
Right before that incident, Irving appeared to stomp on Boston's Lucky the Leprechaun logo at midcourt while congratulating teammates as they departed the court. It wasn’t a particularly egregious moment but unnecessary given the way that Irving performed on the court.
Ultimately, the Celtics have far more pressing issues than a former player rubbing his foot on their logo.
Walker’s struggles in this series and his absence in a pivotal Game 4 will not quiet the cries of those uncertain about his future here. Brad Stevens stressed how hard it was for Walker to be sidelined, a bone bruise on his already sore knee leaving him unable to go, but it will do little to ease concerns about Walker’s ability to stay on the floor moving forward.
Evan Fournier has had his moments in this series but maybe not enough to justify the price tag he could command this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Boston’s interest in retaining him could ultimately hinge on both market price and the other moves the team makes that might ease a ballooning cap sheet.
Some younger players have gotten important playing time in this series. Romeo Langford got the start in Game 4 and those playoff reps defending James Harden will be valuable down the road (NBA tracking data had opponents shooting 5 of 12 against him on Sunday). Rookie Aaron Nesmith hit a trio of 3-pointers while logging 19 minutes. Even late-season addition Jabari Parker showed how he might be able to help this team next year.
But much of the back end of this roster needs to be overhauled. Maybe even more drastic changes await a team where only Tatum and Brown (and Stevens) are certain to be back. Boston’s inability to get consistent play from many of their bench pieces and their overall lack of talent bit them repeatedly this year. An early exit will leave us all wondering if a more robust roster could have at least helped them avoid an unceremonious first-round exit.
Ultimately, even more talent might not have mattered against these Nets, or any of the best teams in the East. Brooklyn shot 57.8 percent overall and 59.3 percent beyond the 3-point line while making 29 of 30 free throws. They had an offensive rating of 143.9 in a playoff game, which is just beyond absurd.
We’re left wondering just how deep the gap is between the Celtics and Nets. It feels like a healthy Brown, Walker, and Williams would have leveled the playing field a bit. But Boston still needs more overall talent to hang, especially with what we’ve seen from the Nets, Sixers, and Bucks this postseason.
There is still basketball to be played this season -- even if it’s just one more game -- but the focus has shifted to what’s ahead. Ainge and Co. have a lot of work in front of them to put the Celtics in position to wash out the taste of a bitter season.