There is absolutely no denying that the Boston Celtics fumbled away a golden opportunity to compete for Banner 18.
Inside the Orlando bubble, a path emerged during the NBA restart that was practically begging for the Celtics-Lakers showdown that 2020 so desperately needed for a bit of normalcy, and Boston couldn’t make it a reality.
Three hundred, sixty-three days removed from their first formal team gathering, the longest and oddest Celtics season in history ended with a 125-113 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics, as became their calling card in this series, became unsteady with a lead and absolutely wilted in crunch time. If there were any doubts about who the better team was, the Heat affirmed their claim to that status with an utterly dominant final nine minutes.
The Celtics will look back and wonder what could have been. They’ll cringe at missed layups (one Gordon Hayward miss in the third quarter was impossibly bad) and tough whistles (the War on Theis is utterly relentless). Boston will lament the lack of composure in the final quarter. But after kicking away a pair of double-digit leads at the start of the series, the Celtics were operating with a razor thin margin for error and Boston simply was not good enough when it mattered most to win this series.
So if the end of this Celtics’ season feels like an especially firm punch to the gut for you, we get it.
But before we harp on the negatives, let’s try to offer a more positive spin.
Maybe you’re not in the mood for that. Maybe you’re angry about Brad Stevens’ big-man rotation, or his timeout usage. Maybe you’re mad at Hayward for being unable to better impact the final games of this series. Maybe you yearned for more from Kemba Walker, especially during those crunch-time moments when Boston so often came unglued. Maybe you’re still mad at Danny Ainge for not adding some additional bench talent before the season paused.
All of that is fair.
Here’s the counter-argument: One season after fizzling out in Round 2 and watching two of their veteran stars bolt for conference rivals, the Celtics trotted out a thoroughly enjoyable group that lifted the team back to the East’s championship stage. Jayson Tatum made a leap to All-NBA talent and still has room to grow, Jaylen Brown asserted himself as a future All-Star, and Walker was the perfect palette-cleanser following the Kyrie Irving experiment.
If we told you a year ago that these Celtics would play deep into September, you’d probably look at us like we were crazy and wonder why the heck playoff games were going on at the start of the 2020-21 preseason. But you probably also would have leaped at that result based on the team’s woes from a season ago.
Sure, expectations spiked in the bubble, especially after a first-round sweep of the Sixers. Then they spiked again after Boston escaped a seven-game series with Toronto (one that, in hindsight, might have sapped more energy than it needed to if Boston had been a bit more crisp — maybe even just, say, a half-second more crisp in Game 3).
So the overwhelming emotion as you read this will almost certainly be disappointment. But that’s telling of the progress this team made on its own, that not being one of the two final teams playing this season is deemed coming up short.
Even the players were balancing those emotions after Game 6.
“Obviously, we feel like we underachieved, but still no reason to hang our head,” said Brown. "I think we’ve got a really good group, a young group, a talented group that’s only going to do nothing but improve. Once again, it stings, but I’m still very very proud of this group.”
Players pledged to use that feeling as motivation to improve.
"We're great competitors, so we have to use this to fuel us to come back stronger, better — mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically,” said Marcus Smart. "We gotta use it to our advantage to come back. It's over and we can't change the past. We can only change the future."
There’s work to be done this offseason throughout the organization. Ainge has three first-round picks to seek complementary talent for a core that should look quite similar, and then will enter free agency likely hunting for low-budget shooting and veteran leadership, especially after watching the way Andre Iguodala was able to leave his imprint on Game 6.
For all his strides, Tatum has to figure out how to be a closer for a title-worthy team. Walker needs to get his knee right and play with the sort of consistency we saw at the start of his Boston tenure. if Brown makes half the strides he made last offseason, he’ll be a surefire All-Star in 2021. Hayward has a decision to make on his option but he’s almost certainly going to take the hefty payday and the Celtics will deem it worthwhile if he can simply stay healthy. Maybe Theis will get a whistle in his favor next calendar year.
But, undoubtedly, simply getting back to this stage will be a chore next season, whenever it starts and however it looks.
The Nets will have a healthy Irving and Kevin Durant. The Heat aren’t going anywhere and can soon finagle their way into a max-salary addition. The Bucks have plenty of motivation to find the pieces that will ensure Giannis Antetokounmpo desires to stay in Milwaukee long term. The Raptors are going to be in the mix. The Sixers might eventually pull their head out of the sand (OK, that’s probably the least of Boston’s concerns).
The question is whether the Celtics, with this same core, are capable of taking that next step. For a team with 17 title banners, bowing in the East finals for the third time in four years simply doesn’t cut it.
Especially when the Lakers are already back in the Finals.
"I believed in this group. I think we were capable. We had more than enough to get the job done. We just let a couple slip away,” said Tatum. "So I give credit to the Heat. They played great. But I really loved and enjoyed playing on this team. It was a lot of fun. Lot of guys got so much better this year, throughout the season, so much work in the offseason, so just to see guys continue to grow and get better. That was fun. It was fun to see.”
The end, however, was not quite as fun. The disappointment is palpable. But don’t let it cloud the positives. And, if you need a positive spin, this could be a mighty quick and condensed offseason.
And the 2021 Celtics will have some particularly lofty expectations based on what they accomplished during this wild season.