The Boston Celtics were on top of the world two nights ago. Derrick White’s buzzer-beating tip in tied the Eastern Conference Finals at three games apiece, giving the Celtics a chance to make history as the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the postseason. Doing so would have been a remarkable achievement, but it would have obscured the severe disappointment of falling behind a No. 8 seed 3-0 in the first place.
That’s a nasty habit the Celtics have developed over the past several years. They tend to play down to their opponent. They needed six games to slay the underwhelming Hawks in the first round and then immediately lost the first game of the second round against a Philadelphia 76ers team that didn’t have James Harden. They even let their guard down during individual games. That Derrick White miracle on Saturday? It was preceded by the Celtics blowing a double-digit lead with under five minutes to play. The same thing happened in Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Boston led by 13 with 3:35 remaining, but ultimately needed Jimmy Butler to miss a game-winning 3-pointer to escape humiliation.
The Celtics are so talented that they frequently get away with these shenanigans… until they run into an opponent capable of punishing them for it. That was Stephen Curry a year ago. It was the Heat on Sunday. When things are going well, the Celtics are unbeatable. When another team punches them in the mouth? Not so much. Boston finished the postseason 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less, with White’s putback representing the only victory. It would be easy to write off the Game 7 loss as the result of Jayson Tatum’s ankle injury, but it’s not as though Boston was one healthy superstar away from winning this game.
Jaylen Brown was supposed to be Boston’s second star. He no-showed Game 7, shooting just 8-of-23 from the field and 1-of-9 from deep while turning the ball over as many times by himself (eight) as the Heat did as a team. Those same turnovers nearly doomed Boston against Miami a year ago, and it’s worth revisiting the idea that Brown and Tatum might have overlapping skill sets that could be best-served playing on separate teams. You can never have too many wings in the NBA, but committing to the two of them has left Boston thin in other crucial areas.
The Celtics notably lack the sort of primary ball-handler that can control the flow of a game and dictate pace. That frequently makes them slow to get into their offense, which rushes them into late-clock turnovers. Brown isn’t solely responsible for that weakness, but he doesn’t help matters either with his underwhelming ball-handling. His athleticism and spot-up shooting are his best traits. Those are skills best maximized on a team that has a traditional point guard.
Keeping Tatum and Brown together has been a no-brainer for most of their careers. It’s going to get harder to justify now that the new collective bargaining agreement imposes such harsh penalties on big spenders. Both Tatum and Brown earned All-NBA honors this season, and are therefore eligible to earn supermax money on their next deals. Boston finished this season roughly $25 million above the luxury tax line, and that was with Tatum and Brown both earning below market value. Once the new CBA kicks in, the second apron starts penalizing teams that finish $17.5 million or more above the tax line.
Those restrictions are downright draconian. Such teams can’t use the taxpayer mid-level exception. They can’t sign players after buyouts. They can’t trade draft picks seven years out. Heck, they can’t even aggregate salaries in trades anymore. Finish above that second apron and a team is almost locked into its existing roster. Do the Celtics have a roster they’re comfortable getting locked into? Will they still have one if Brown and Tatum’s combined salaries force them to excise several key role players?
Right now, it’s hard to believe the answer to both questions is “yes.” The Brown-Tatum duo is what makes the Celtics great, but there’s not an obvious path to fixing what’s wrong in Boston without splitting them up. The simplest alternative, for now, would be finding a new coach.
History says there is almost no chance that the Celtics actually fire Joe Mazzulla. Only 22 first-time head coaches have ever been fired after their first year at the helm, aside from Ime Udoka, who left the Celtics under different circumstances. All 22 of them had records below .500 in their debut campaigns except for Jack McKinney, who coached just 14 games for the 1979-80 Lakers before a bicycle accident ended his season. Mazzulla made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Of course, he had a roster that made it to the Finals a year ago, so it’s unclear how much credit he deserves for that feat. What we can say for certain is that Boston lost the defensive identity that made it special a year ago. Several Celtics spoke on that reality after Game 7, with Marcus Smart calling their defense “our kryptonite” and Malcolm Brogdon arguing that you don’t “win championships with a better offense than you do a defense.” Boston largely had the same roster this season as it had last year, yet whatever Udoka built a season ago seems to have vanished.
Mazzulla’s hesitance to call timeouts has been well-documented. He didn’t go back to the bigger starting lineup that helped carry Boston to the Finals a season ago until Game 6 of the second round this season, when the Celtics were one game away from elimination. Their offense grew entirely too dependent on 3-pointers, with Miami combining to make 18 more 3-pointers than Boston in its four victories. The decision to play a clearly injured Brogdon in Game 7 made little sense, and the Celtics lost his seven minutes by 15 points.
These would be fireable offenses for a more experienced coach. Mazzulla could credibly argue that he was thrown into the job with little time to prepare and an undermanned coaching staff. Perhaps Boston beefs up his bench with an experienced assistant or two this offseason and gives him another season to prove himself.
But if Brown and Mazzulla are both back, Boston suddenly has far fewer options for major changes. The Celtics will have their full complement of first-round picks available trades once June’s draft has concluded, and the Celtics have a number of mid-sized salaries (Brogdon, White, Smart, Al Horford and Robert Williams III) to dangle for upgrades if they so choose. But trading a few of those players for a single star-level point guard would raise the second-apron concerns we covered earlier, and there isn’t an obvious point guard upgrade available on the market even if Boston wanted to tempt the tax gods.
Chris Paul would be a wonderful addition if his partially-guaranteed deal got waived, but the Celtics (or really, pretty much any other team for that matter) would have a hard time justifying a $30 million salary for him at this stage of his career. Boston could potentially look to bring Terry Rozier back if the Hornets draft Scoot Henderson at No. 2 overall, but he didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms in 2019. They’re too far above the first apron to realistically make a Fred VanVleet sign-and-trade work under the first apron’s hard cap restrictions. Finals-caliber ball-handling is exceedingly rare.
The Celtics hoped Brogdon could be that stabilizing force offensively. Injuries prevented it in this series, but injuries are par for the Brogdon course. Smart has been the point guard presiding over most of these playoff issues, and is best-suited for an off-ball role. He’s also the vocal leader of a team that’s been outworked by the Heat in back-to-back postseasons. A year ago, he called himself the “heart and soul” of the team. Heart and soul are two things the Celtics haven’t exactly had in abundance during these playoff collapses.
Those things are impossible to quantify, and they’re weaknesses that teams do everything in their power to ignore. The Celtics, on paper, are a team built around two relatively young All-Stars that made the Finals a year ago and came one win short this season. Plenty of teams would trade places with them in a heartbeat. But they just keep losing in the same, avoidable ways over and over and over again. At a certain point, the Celtics are going to have to look inward and accept that there is something about this mix of players and coaches that isn’t working when it matters most.
Accepting that would have been easier if the Heat had simply swept the Celtics and left no room for debate. But inertia drives the bulk of NBA decision-making. Teams don’t like making major changes. They rarely want to admit that they’re wrong. But the Celtics have had the NBA’s best roster two years in a row and failed to win it all. They’ve lost as the higher seed in five of the past seven postseasons, nearly falling to No. 8 seeds on two separate occasions before ultimately doing so this time around. They rarely correct their mistakes and are facing a collective bargaining agreement designed to make their life more difficult. Something needs to change in Boston if the Celtics are going to overcome all of this. It might be the players. It might be the coach. But it has to be something.