Maybe it’s fitting that the Boston Celtics’ season ended in full on crash-and-burn mode during the final minutes of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics were up six with under nine minutes to play but, with their season in the balance, went into panic mode while Miami rallied back to tie the game. Instead of working to generate good shots, the Celtics settled for a string of contested 3-pointers, all while Miami turned those misses into transition opportunities and the Heat’s lead snowballed to double figures in the blink of an eye.
Just like that, the Celtics season was over.
The sequence accentuated maybe the most troubling part of Boston’s playoff stay: The Celtics routinely wilted in crunch time against quality opponents and an inability to catch themselves whenever things went sideways ultimately delivered their demise.
Consider this: Starting with Game 3 of the Raptors series, the Celtics played nine crunch-time qualifying games with the score within 5 points in the final 5 minutes of play. Boston was 2-7 in those games with a net rating of minus-26.7 in nearly a full game worth of crunch-time play (42 total minutes).
Boston’s offensive rating in that span was a ghastly 92.1. Its defensive rating was an unsightly 118.8. The Celtics simply were not a championship-worthy team when the lights were the brightest.
In the immediate aftermath of their disappointing exit, the Celtics didn’t have many answers for why they so routinely came unglued. Most players punted on trying to identify the root of their crunch-time struggles. Boston coughed up double-digit leads in Games 1 and 2 of the series and, when Miami dominated the late-game moments, it put the Celtics in an 0-2 hole that essentially forced them to be perfect the rest of the way.
“We gotta grow. We’re going to have to figure out how to win those games down the stretch,” Kemba Walker said after Boston’s Game 6 loss. "But we got time. We’re about to be outta here but, at some point, we’re going to look back at this and just learn. It’s all learning experiences.”
Every great team knows how to close games and understands what players should have the ball in their hands in those instances. The Celtics too often seemed to lack a confidence in those moments and that wasn’t exactly a new issue in the postseason.
In 42 crunch-time games during the regular season, Boston had a modest 23-19 record, the 12th best winning percentage in the NBA. Their net rating was plus-4.4 in those games, also ranking 12th out of 30 teams.
Boston was able to maintain a similar net rating in the conference semifinals against Toronto, in part because of their defensive efforts against the Raptors. But the wheels came off completely in the East finals.
The Celtics were 6-7 in crunch-time games overall during the playoffs, but three of those wins came against the wayward 76ers during a first-round sweep. Outside of Walker, Boston’s core players really struggled to consistently score the ball in crunch-time situations during the postseason. Take away Walker and the Celtics were 23 of 64 shooting (.360) and 3 of 22 on 3-pointers (13.6 percent) during those crunch-time moments.
So how can Boston improve? A few thoughts:
As poor as Boston’s shot selection tended to be in crunch time during the postseason, much of the team's troubles started on the defensive end. Instead of clamping down like they so often did in the Toronto series, the Celtics watched Miami consistently generate points and that put even more pressure on Boston to answer.
The Celtics can weather rough late-game offense with stops, particularly if they can aid transition opportunities. But when this team was taking the ball out of the basket frequently in the conference finals, it had no chance.
STICK TO THE GAME PLAN
Part of what makes the Boston offense so good is that the team has multiple threats and the Celtics put a heavy emphasis on moving the ball and finding the best shot. Boston too often gets away from what works, especially as leads are slipping away.
The 3-point barrage at the end of Game 6 ran counter to coach Brad Stevens’ series-long plea to attack the basket. Instead of getting back to basics when things go sideways, these Celtics too often resort to isolation-heavy hero ball and that’s far from the strength of this team.
ESTABLISH A LATE-GAME HIERARCHY
As much as the Celtics rely on an offensive democracy, there also has to be a clear-cut pecking order in terms of who the Celtics are trying to get the ball to in crunch-time situations. Marcus Smart took the same amount of shots (6) in the fourth quarter of Game 6 as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
With the season on the line, the Celtics would probably prefer their young duo (and Walker, who had a team-high 7 fourth-quarter shots) get those looks. Smart should be trying to make his impact on the defensive end.
FIND THE RIGHT CLOSING LINEUP
If Gordon Hayward had been closer to full health then maybe Boston’s “Best 5” center-less lineup could have been more effective in crunch time at the finish line of the season. But that lineup struggled much of the season and the Celtics simply have to balance whether it’s better to have a big like Theis out there to at least create a threat around the basket while allowing Tatum and Walker to be the clear-cut offensive focal points.
BE TOUGHER, MENTALLY (AND PHYSICALLY, TOO)
The Celtics simply didn’t respond well this postseason when they hit turbulence. Maybe Stevens needs to be quicker with timeouts and find a way to steady his group before things snowball. Celtics players have to be able to brush off bad possessions and not let misses impact their effort at the other end of the floor.
When teams push them, they need to push back. The Celtics seemingly have the personnel to thrive and yet they rarely did this postseason. Ultimately, the team needs to let the disappointment of what happened against Miami fuel them to be that much more focused in crunch-time games moving forward.