After getting outworked at home by the Miami Heat and falling into 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 that the NBA has never seen a team come back from 3-0 down to win a series, and immediately come out and lay an egg.
Game 3 was the Celtics’ worst performance in the playoffs. It was a failure on every level, but seeing both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown no-show a game of that magnitude was especially remarkable. 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 lack ability to meet the moment stood in stark contrast to the Heat team on the other side, who seemingly only get 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 up to him to put together the right plan and get them all on the same page. That this team, with a core that has been to four conference finals in five years, needs to be properly motivated by the coach to rise to a 3-down 2-0 game is a problem in itself. That Mazzulla failed to do so shows the cracks in the foundation that Brad Stevens and company have been desperately trying to overcome.
Jaylen Brown called Game 3 “embarrassing” and said it’s a collective problem, that I don’t want to point fingers — which I also didn’t want to do when a lot of fingers were pointed at me. He seemed as confused as anyone at how the team (including himself) played as poorly as they did. He and Jayson Tatum both said the team needs to come out and play with “a little bit of pride” in the next game, which again isn’t a big deal to have to strive for down 3-0 in the conference finals against a team you were on paper a lot better than.
“We can point fingers, but in reality it’s just embarrassing.”
Jaylen Brown reacts to the loss in Game 3 pic.twitter.com/S9jemYhn5I
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) 22 May 2023
It was clear after Game 3 that Boston is out of explanations and excuses. It’s one thing to lose to a three-championship team like the Warriors, or to be the young team on the rise taking their lumps against a LeBron-led Cavs team that won the East every year. It is such losses that can be seen as lessons to learn from. Losing like this against an 8-seeded Heat team operating with a theoretical (albeit not in practice) talent deficit is not one of them. It’s the kind of thing that leads to significant change in an organization.
It must be noted that what Miami has done this postseason, especially against the Bucks and Celtics, has been nothing short of astounding. Their shooting has been at a level no one could have predicted coming in, knocking down 46 percent of their threes in eight games across the 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 crucial in punishing defenses that try to collapse on Butler. Kyle Lowry has regained his old form after a terrible 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 counterparts in Boston), and Duncan Robinson, after a year-plus on the bench, has been revitalized and is just back to his bubbly ways, knocking down seemingly everything.
However, what Miami is doing also shows what Boston lacks. Every player on Miami looks like they play with supreme confidence, and they do so because of the way they feed off of Jimmy Butler (and to a slightly lesser extent, 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 else in the playoffs gives you the confidence.
None of that is 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 the same trust in the “others” and it shows in the biggest moments. This is a team that has struggled all year to hold fourth-quarter leads, regularly letting teams back into games as their half-court offense stalls. Their stars tend to get tunnel vision, trying to carry the load themselves to drag the team out of the mud. Sometimes it works, just ask the Sixers who saw Tatum pile up 53 points in Game 7 to get the Celtics to this point, but what can also happen is they just spin the tires and sink deeper.
We’ve seen it play out in this series in the moments where Miami starts to take hold of the game, Boston just can’t produce enough to keep up. The third quarter of Game 1 (25 points), the 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 has simply not been up to the task at each end of the floor.
Whenever this streak ends, and it looks like it will happen soon, Boston will enter the offseason with as much pressure as it has in some time to make serious changes. To this point, the Celtics have been patient with their young core and seemed poised to reap the rewards of that approach after a Finals appearance last year. There has been a lot of chatter over the years about breaking up the Tatum and Brown pairing, with many wondering if two players who want to do similar things on the ball are best suited to play with each other. Last year’s run silenced that notion, but a dismal showdown against Miami has rekindled those doubts.
That’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 least go out in a manner befitting a title contender. Patience is no longer something they can afford, and after spending last offseason seemingly bolstering the lineup around the stars with what they needed, adding 6MOY Malcolm Brogdon to be a steady hand for the second unit, the focus will once again shift to their star duo. offseason. Brown poised to enter a contract year only adds to the attention on him, as his performances have been particularly woeful against the Heat, and with Tatum already maxed out and the new CBA set to kick in, it’s a fair question to wonder if Boston will give Brown the deal he will undoubtedly seek.
Very little seems off the table for Boston entering this offseason, joining an astounding number of teams unhappy with the way this season ended. It was a year that felt wide open in the NBA, and the playoffs have shown that to be the case, with an 8-seed and 7-seed reaching the conference finals. It meant that teams at the top (and even in the middle) felt they had a real shot at a title, and to come up short in a year like this where the cards were seemingly in their favor only adds to the frustration.
Joe Mazzulla, recently signed to a new contract this offseason, will certainly be scrutinized given the caliber of coaches on the market, but Brad Stevens must first figure out what direction he wants to go with the roster before making a coaching decision. If the problem relates to this particular group, it might be less of a concern if a significant roster upgrade is on the way. Still, with Monty Williams, Doc Rivers, Nick Nurse and Mike Budenholzer currently out of a job, 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 due to his two-way talents, and after years of rumblings he could be moved, this summer could see that come to fruition. Tatum will almost certainly remain the centerpiece, but what will they identify as the missing secondary piece if they decide to trade Brown (again)? If it is in the back room, it can 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 Browns trade, moving one of them to get 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 is finally reaping the rewards of keeping its All-Star duo together and building around them in the face of outside pressure to break them up. They should have sat above all the chaos that will take place this offseason, and cemented their position as the team all the others are chasing. Instead, they will find themselves in the middle of it all.
The moment they are eliminated, the post-mortem examinations will begin. Acquired storylines of 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 apparently, but going out like this, with no explanations and no apologies, has little to do but make changes.