After getting outworked at home by the Miami Heat and falling in a 2-0 hole, the Celtics entered Sunday night as, theoretically, the desperate team. The reigning Eastern Conference champions faced a must-win situation, given the NBA has never seen a team come back from 3-0 down to win a series, and promptly came out and laid an egg.
Game 3 was the Celtics worst performance of the playoffs. It was a failure at every level, but seeing both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown no-show a game of that magnitude was particularly noteworthy. The two combined to go 12-of-35 from the field (1-of-14 from three-point range) for 26 points in the biggest game of the season, before being pulled after three quarters with Miami up 30. Their inability to meet the moment stood in stark contrast to the Heat team on the other side, which seemingly only gets better as the lights get brighter.
There is a disconnect in Boston right now that no one can figure out. First year head coach Joe Mazzulla took responsibility after Game 3 for not having the team ready to play, saying it’s on him to put together the right plan and get them all on the same page. That this team, with a core that’s been to four conference finals in five years, needs to be properly motivated by the coach to get up for a Game 3 down 2-0 is a problem in and of itself. That Mazzulla couldn’t do it shows the cracks in the foundation that Brad Stevens and company have been trying desperately to paper over.
Jaylen Brown called Game 3 “embarrassing” and said it’s a collective issue, not wanting to point fingers — which is what I would also not want to do when many of the fingers would be pointing at me. He seemed as baffled as anyone how the team (including himself) played as poorly as they did. He and Jayson Tatum both said the team has to come out and play with “some pride” in the next game, which is, again, not a great thing to have to strive for down 3-0 in the conference finals against a team you were, on paper, much better than.
“We can point fingers, but in reality, it’s just embarrassing.”
Jaylen Brown reacts to the Game 3 loss pic.twitter.com/S9jemYhn5I
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 22, 2023
It was clear after Game 3 that Boston is out of explanations and excuses. It’s one thing to lose to a team with three championships like the Warriors, or to be the young team on the rise that takes its lumps against a LeBron-led Cavs team that won the East every year. Those are the kinds of losses that can be viewed as lessons to learn from. Losing in this fashion to an 8-seeded Heat team operating at a theoretical (albeit, not in practice) talent deficit, is not one of those. That’s the kind of thing that leads to significant changes in an organization.
It has to be noted that what Miami has done this postseason, particularly against the Bucks and Celtics, has been nothing short of astounding. Their shot-making has been at a level no one could’ve predicted coming in, knocking down 46 percent of their threes in eight games across those two series (falling back to earth in between against the Knicks).
Jimmy Butler seemingly hits every big shot he’s asked to, but he’s not alone. Bam Adebayo has found another gear offensively that has been critical to punishing defenses that try to collapse on Butler. Kyle Lowry has regained his form of old after a dreadful year-plus in Miami, giving them another guard capable of creating for others. Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and Caleb Martin have each been phenomenal on both ends of the floor (outplaying their much more highly regarded role-playing counterparts in Boston), and Duncan Robinson, after a year-plus on the bench, has been revived and is just back to his bubble ways, knocking down seemingly everything.
However, what Miami is doing also shows what Boston is lacking. Every player on Miami looks like they are playing with supreme confidence, and they’re doing so because of the way they feed off of Jimmy Butler (and to a slightly lesser degree Bam Adebayo). Caleb Martin explained as much after Game 3, pointing out how it’s impossible not to be confident when the guy playing better than anyone in the playoffs is extending that trust to you.
Caleb Martin on the confidence Miami’s role players receive from the unselfish play of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo!
Heat seek Finals berth Tuesday on TNT#NBAConferenceFinals presented by @GooglePixel_US pic.twitter.com/0ar4W0ZqiO
— NBA (@NBA) May 22, 2023
There is none of that happening in Boston, where confidence is waning, in large part because the team’s stars seem unsure of themselves and the rest of the team. Tatum and Brown don’t have that same trust in the “others” and it shows up in the biggest moments. This is a team that’s struggled all year with holding fourth quarter leads, regularly allowing teams to claw back into games as their halfcourt offense stalls out. Their stars tend to get tunnel vision, trying to shoulder the load themselves to drag the team out of the mud. At times it works, just ask the Sixers who watched Tatum pile up 53 points in Game 7 to get the Celtics to this point, but what can also happen is they just spin their tires and sink deeper.
We’ve seen that play out in this series in the moments where Miami starts to grab hold of the game, Boston simply cannot produce enough to keep up. The third quarter of Game 1 (25 points), fourth quarter of Game 2 (22 points), and the third quarter of Game 3 (17 points) have been the three most important quarters of the series, and Boston simply has not been up to the task on either end of the floor.
Whenever this series ends, and it certainly seems like that will happen soon, Boston will enter the offseason with pressure as high as its been in some time to make serious changes. To this point, the Celtics have been patient with their young core and seemed ready to reap the rewards of that approach coming off of a Finals appearance last year. There has been ample chatter over the years about breaking up the Tatum and Brown pairing, with many wondering if two players that want to do similar things on the ball are best suited playing with each other. Last year’s run quieted that notion, but a dismal showing against Miami has rekindled those doubts.
It’s part of the difficulty in making the leap as a team. This is no longer a young team on the rise, but a contender expected to win championships — or at the least, go out in a way befitting of a title contender. Patience is no longer something afforded to them, and after spending last offseason seemingly bolstering the roster around the stars with what they needed, adding 6MOY Malcolm Brogdon to be a steady hand for the second unit, the focus will again shift to their star duo this offseason. Brown getting set to enter a contract year only heightens the attention on him, as his performance has been particularly woeful against the Heat, and with Tatum already on a max and the new CBA set to kick in, it’s a fair question to wonder whether Boston will want to give Brown the deal he undoubtedly will be seeking.
Very little seems off the table for Boston as they head into this offseason, joining an astounding number of teams that are disgruntled at the way this season ended. It was a year that felt wide open in the NBA and the playoffs have showed that to be the case, with an 8-seed and 7-seed reaching the conference finals. That meant teams at the top (and even in the middle) felt they had a real chance at a title, and falling short in a year like this where the cards were seemingly in their favor only adds to the frustration.
Joe Mazzulla, freshly signed to a new contract this season, certainly will be under examination given the caliber of coaches on the market, but Brad Stevens must first determine what direction he wants to go with the roster before he makes a decision on the coach. If the issue is connecting with this particular group, that’s maybe less of a concern if a sizable roster shakeup is on the way. Still, with Monty Williams, Doc Rivers, Nick Nurse, and Mike Budenholzer all out of jobs currently, Boston could seek out a veteran presence on the bench to bring a more commanding voice to the locker room.
Brown will be highly sought after given his two-way talents, and after years of rumblings he could get moved, this summer might bring that to fruition. Tatum will almost assuredly remain the centerpiece, but what would they identify as the missing secondary piece should they decide to shop Brown (again)? If it’s in the backcourt, that could lead to more changes. They already have solid point guard depth with Brogdon, Derrick White, and Marcus Smart, but if the goal is to add a star caliber guard in a Brown trade, moving one of them for help elsewhere makes sense.
This season was supposed to be the culmination of years of patience with a talented homegrown core, much like what’s happening in Denver. Boston finally reaping the reward for keeping its All-Star duo together and building around them in the face of external pressure to break them up. They should have been sitting above all of the chaos set to take place this offseason, cementing their position as the team all the others are chasing. Instead, they will find themselves right in the midst of it all.
The moment they are eliminated, the post-mortems will begin. Sourced stories on internal discord, a young coach in over his head, and a star duo growing further apart seem like a lock. It’s a far cry from where they started the year as the heirs apparent, but going out like this, with no explanations and no excuses, leaves little to do but make changes.