How many times did we hear the Boston Celtics reflect on coming up short in the 2022 NBA Finals? It was stressed time and time again, the Green expressing how they would use that loss as fuel during the 2022-23 campaign and ultimately redeem themselves when back on that stage.
Well, so much for that.
Instead, after an admirable comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat, the Celtics bowed out in Game 7 at TD Garden on Monday night. Miami earned the right to face the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals after a 103-84 victory in which the visitors held a lead for the final 39 minutes.
Boston’s poor offensive performance — the Celtics shot 9-for-42 from beyond the arc, 29% from the field and turned the ball over 15 times — and a first-quarter injury to Jayson Tatum undoubtedly played a large role in the playoff exit. Not to be overshadowed, though, is the fact the Celtics took a shotgun to their foot in the first three games of the series.
The Celtics put themselves in a position where they had to be perfect in the final four games. That’s an incredibly difficult task against any team, but especially against Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and the tenacious Heat. Boston was far from perfect in the winner-take-all contest in front of a star-studded crowd and fans who spent the last week comparing the city’s basketball team to the 2004 Boston Red Sox. So much for that atmosphere, too. Boston went 5-6 at home this postseason, a perplexing result.
So while some Green Teamers will praise the Celtics for their resilient comeback, let’s not forget it was that same team that put itself in that position. The Celtics let go of the rope in Games 1 and 2, as head coach Joe Mazzulla explained, and were embarrassed in Game 3. Boston tried to become the first-ever team to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. They were one of four teams to ever force a Game 7. Then they went from history to afterthought Monday night.
Now that it’s official, we can say it: The Celtics underachieved in their 2022-23 campaign.
The highs were high, sure, but the lows were low. Being down 20-plus points in the fourth quarter of Game 7 while Miami forward Caleb Martin outplayed both of Boston’s stars felt like arguably the biggest low of the season. The team losing its head coach essentially on the eve of the season surely was another source of adversity.
Nevertheless, it feels like the Celtics blew the organization’s best opportunity of the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown era. Optimistic Celtics fan will point to a long and enticing future for the tandem. Brown is eligible for a supermax extension as soon as this offseason while Tatum is eligible for his own next offseason. Boston can offer each player more money than any other team. But are we really that confident in this being the makeup of the team for years to come? These sorts of runs don’t last forever, especially in a league that fluctuates as much as the NBA. (And no, this is not a call to split up the two.)
During this season, Boston had its deepest roster in more than a decade. Tatum and Brown, an All-NBA First Team selection and All-NBA Second-Team honoree, respectively, had their best years as professionals. Brad Stevens’ offseason trade for Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon looked like arguably the best offseason move in the league, well, before he got hurt in Game 1 of the conference finals and became unplayable against Miami. Derrick White, who was well-deserving of the Eastern Conference MVP award should the Celtics have advanced, was named to an All-Defense team and grew into his role after an inconsistent first season. The Celtics rostered those players along with the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and another 2022 All-Defense representative in Robert Williams, who returned to form after missing time with an injury.
How does that group come up further away from the long-awaited Banner 18 than last season? It doesn’t make sense. It’s maddening, just like the Celtics were during stretches of the regular season and postseason. They failed to bring it each and every playoff game. They were able to overcome it against the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers, but not against the mentally tough Heat. It proved to be Boston’s fatal flaw.
Now Celtics fans will enter another offseason thinking what could (and should) have been. Only this might not be something one offseason will solve. The Celtics just blew a golden opportunity, the best opportunity they’ve had since Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were wearing green. And the path was there. They benefitted from a first-round matchup against the Hawks — they could have had to face the Heat in the first round — then were given home-court advantage when the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were dealt a first-round exit. They would have had home-court advantage in the NBA Finals. But Boston couldn’t take care of what it had to take care of to get there.
They didn’t even give themselves a chance to make up for last year’s downfall on the championship stage. And now it will be remembered for years to come.