Monday, October 2 2023

First, it seemed like the Boston Celtics were going to be embarrassed. Then, it seemed like they’d make NBA history. Finally, on Monday night, their Jekyll-and-Hyde season came to a disappointing end.

After becoming just the fourth NBA team to force a Game 7 in a best-of-seven series once falling behind 3-0, the Celtics were run off their home floor by the Miami Heat in a 103-84 loss.

[Heat avoid making wrong kind of history vs. Celtics, instead headed to NBA Finals]

It’d be silly to overreact to a Game 7 loss, especially one coming in the conference finals. But, given the track record of this current Celtics group and some looming contract situations, the defeat does bring the Celtics to a fork-in-the-road moment. This is an organization now facing difficult questions in need of immediate answers.

This is this core’s fourth time losing in the conference finals in the past seven seasons. Does that mean they’ve reached their ceiling, or that they’re just one small tweak away from breaking through? This was head coach Joe Mazulla’s first year at the helm. Does a bumpy postseason performance mean he’s the wrong guy to carry the Celtics forward, or is he someone who can grow in the job? Make the right choices, and next season the Celtics should be right back in the title mix. Make the wrong ones, and the whole foundation could collapse.

The first decision the Celtics will have to make is what to do with Mazzulla, who over the course of the playoffs has come under heavy public scrutiny. Much of that is unfair. Mazzulla is a 34-year-old, first-time NBA head coach who before this season had never even been a front-of-the-bench assistant in the NBA. He was thrust into this position as a result of the Ime Udoka suspension and did a commendable job. The Celtics won 57 games during the regular season and finished second in both offensive and defensive rating. The fact that the Celtics didn’t roll over after falling behind 3-0 should count for something.

But the NBA playoffs are an entirely different game, and throughout these playoffs it became clear that Mazzulla wasn’t yet ready for the spotlight. That’s no knock; few with his background would be. But the Celtics defense falling off a cliff — they surrendered 113 points per 100 possessions, a middle-of-the-pack-regular season rate and nearly three-point drop-off from their regular season mark — is a red flag. So was the offense’s repeated inability to execute in crunch time. Limiting the minutes of Robert Williams III and mostly benching Grant Williams, two of the team’s best defenders, were curious moves. Getting defensive with the media also wasn’t a great look.


It also became clear throughout the playoffs that Mazzulla didn’t have complete buy-in from his players. Again, it’s understandable. They’re all basically the same age, there’s no shared history between the group, and it’s not like Mazzulla has an unimpeachable NBA background. But there were a number of comments from Celtics players throughout the playoffs which made clear that their confidence in their coach wasn’t exactly unwavering.

“Joe’s learning, just like all of us, you know,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said during the second-round series against Philadelphia. “I know he’s been killed a lot — rightfully so, you know? He needs to make some adjustments. And he did that.”

Still, it’s important to remember that Brad Stevens, Boston’s president of basketball operations — and a former coach himself — was a believer in Mazzulla even before the season he started. The Celtics even blocked the Utah Jazz from hiring Mazzulla after former Celtics assistant Will Hardy took over as the Jazz’s head coach in the offseason. They believe in Mazzulla as a coach, and in his future. The issue is whether the Celtics players share those views. If they don’t, and with a bunch of talented coaches on the market looking for new jobs, Stevens might not have a choice.

Whether to keep Mazzulla isn’t the only major decision facing Stevens. He’ll also have to decide whether he wants to double-down on the Jayson TatumJaylen Brown duo.

Brown has just one year remaining on his current contract. After being named to the All-NBA second team this season, he’s now eligible for a so-called “supermax” extension, which would be for five years and around $290 million. The Celtics can offer him that on July 1. Brown has made clear that he views himself as a max player (which he is). Also, remember in March when he had the following to say about the Celtics:

“It’s hard coming into teams and organizations and being warm. They operate on different principles, I think,” he told The Ringer. “This is an organization. They look at it as a business, where they’ll tell you one thing, and then behind closed doors, they’ll say another, and they’ll trade you off. Tell you, ‘We love you,’ and they’ll be having like, ‘We’re going to trade him next week.’ I think that’s just how business is run…I feel like a lot of times, when you deal in these corporate spaces, everybody wants to come through the back door or come through an angle.”

Does that sound like someone who will have any tolerance for a negotiation? In other words: The Celtics should assume that Brown will reject any offer for less than the full supermax, and that he’ll be insulted if said offer doesn’t arrive at midnight on July 1. And the Celtics cannot, under any circumstance, let Brown reach unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2024 without a new deal and risk losing him for nothing. All of which leaves them with the following two options: Offer Brown the full supermax at midnight on July 1 or trade him.

Should Celtics split Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown duo if eliminated?

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