The NBA Playoffs live, but the Boston Celtics are lying in state and everyone with any basketball IQ wants to know why the heck that is?
That’s a very good question. The team most widely picked to succeed the Cleveland Cavaliers as Eastern Conference champions, finished a very uneven season with an unseemly Game 5 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks and then slithered out of town with a ton of questions concerning what’s next for them.
It ended with their starters on the bench contemplating what went wrong and who was to blame, not only for the loss to the Bucks, but for the loss of the energy that took them to within one game of the NBA Finals last season.
“It was tough. It was a tough season. A tough year,” Marcus Morris said. “I don’t think nothing was missing. I just really can’t put my finger on why.”
After their elimination, Celtics coach Brad Stevens, relegated from Boy Wonder to Boy What’s He Thinking, took the blame as all self-respecting coaches do. There were problems and he either didn’t identify them fast enough or figure out how to solve them before time smacked him with a shillelagh.
“I’ll be the first to say that, as far as any other year that I’ve been a head coach, this has been the most trying. I did a bad job,” Stevens said. “At the end of the day, as a coach, as the team doesn’t find its best fit together, that’s on you. So, I’ll do a lot of deep dives into how I can be better.”
The common theme is that the Celtics just didn’t care enough. After laying it on the line last spring, without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward to rely on, the juice stayed bottled. There was no pulp, no punch, no persuasive action when push came to shove.
That was demonstrated in Game 5 in Milwaukee. The Celtics faced great odds. Only 11 of 248 teams down 3-1 in a playoff series had ever come back to win. That was the least of their problems. The Bucks, arguably the best team in the NBA this season, hadn’t lost three straight all season.
But the Celtics were never in the game and down by 20 with seven minutes to play, Stevens slowly raised the white flag by pulling Irving.
“They just kept hammering at the rock until we cracked,” Stevens said. “And we cracked. That’s probably the thing that hurts the most. I’ve been a coach for 12 years and we let go of the rope and cracked more than we should have.”
Those steps to the bench may be Irving’s final in Celtics green. His impending free agency overs over the team like the Prudential Center and there is no shade from the heat.
It doesn’t matter anymore than Irving seemed to pledge is loyalty to the team in October by hinting he would re-sign once free agency begins in July. All he would say on Wednesday was he wanted to go home and do things normal people do, which obviously now includes which million dollar checks he wants to cash next season.
Boston’s season never really took off. The players who were so effective last year found themselves back on the bench this year and didn’t like it. Guard Terry Rozier was at the top of that list. Soon the haves and have-nots clashed and any chance of a championship took a back seat to just surviving. Even Irving, the man with the plan, seemed sullen.
“The business part of it is what makes it terrible for me, honestly, dealing with all this crap,” Irving said earlier this season. “I’m going to be honest with you guys. The basketball part, I have to keep that fun. That’s where I’m great, that’s where I love to play and be around my teammates, that’s what makes me happy.”
Bad attitudes soon translated into bad play. They had no post game. They ranked 23rd in the league in points in the paint and couldn’t get to the line. Opponents grasped the trouble, tightened the vise. The Bucks, especially their bench, made them suffer.
“They are one hell of a basketball team,” Stevens said. “And they’ve been building habits every day, and those habits showed up and they showed up over and over again. And we make a teaching tape all year for our teams, about different things: closeouts, recovering, flying around. The Bucks are going to be on a lot of clips. They were tremendous. Credit them, credit their coaches, credit their players. They’re better than we are, and they earned that. And it was clear throughout the five-game series.”
Irving is not the only player who might leave. Al Horford has a player option and optimal marketability. If they go, why would any top-flight free agent come. They could soon be the Knicks. Morris (an unrestricted free agent), Aron Baynes (with a player option for next season) and Rozier (a restricted free agent) might also go.
“To get that close last year and to obviously have a better team, it hurts. I’d be lying if I said I’m not hurt,” Morris said. “Just as a competitor, seeing what we have, the group of guys we have, it’s hard to swallow how this ended.”