The Celtics were crushed by the Nets. In Game 5 on Tuesday night, despite keeping it close through three quarters, Brooklyn easily dispatched Boston 123-109 to end their first round series. In their four wins combined, the Nets outscored the Celtics by 62 points and really, it wasn’t that close.
While those margins seemingly distinguish a definitive gap between the former Eastern Conference finalist and the betting favorite to win the Larry O’Brien this summer, the Celtics will enter this offseason with more questions than answers.
Boston finished the regular season with 36 wins and 36 losses. That’s mediocrity defined, but context paints a clearer picture. The Celtics infamously lost the most games by a large margin to the league’s COVID health and safety protocols that included six rotation players contracting the coronavirus, including all five Game 5 starters.
Injuries to key players plagued the team all year, including most dramatically in the playoffs. The starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams played only ten games together. Walker Smart, Brown, and Tatum were lucky to be on the floor at the same time for seventeen.
Also, a report from former CelticsBlogger and The Athletic’s Jared Weiss suggests that the team chemistry was strained by “the way the Celtics were discussed by team leadership, according to multiple sources familiar with players’ thinking.” Ainge and ownership voiced their frustrations several times throughout the year with expectations high after three runs to the conference finals in four years.
Marcus Smart reflects on injuries, not playing together and personal issues that lead to chemistry issues this season for the Celtics pic.twitter.com/EmJQUTHVVt— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) June 2, 2021
“In a lot of ways, it was as hard of a year that any of us have been through. They did nothing but stick together and improve,” Brad Stevens said after Game 5. “We didn’t play perfect basketball, but we showed a lot of growth in the last few weeks.”
Despite those extenuating circumstances, Brad Stevens acknowledged on Tuesday night that regardless of health, his team needs to get better this summer. “We never got a true look at this team this season, but we got enough information to show we have to get better.” Stevens said.
Some of that improvement has to come from Boston’s youth. The Celtics finished the year with ten players on their rookie contracts and several rookies and sophomores showing flashes of potential. Payton Pritchard had an immediate impact early, but faded towards the postseason. Aaron Nesmith popped late. Grant Williams suffered some arrested development between Years 1 and 2, but could benefit from a more defined role next season. Against the Nets, Stevens was encouraged by Romeo Langford’s showing and broadly speaking, he felt that “they saw the level they have to meet and that’s a real level” against the East favorite Nets.
First, they need to get away. Everyone needs to get away for a little bit. But then they have to have a great summer of work. It’s a big summer for those guys. They gotta make that jump,” Stevens said.
While internal development will be a priority in July and August and September, there’s still transactional business to tend to. The core four plus Tristan Thompson are still under contract, but Danny Ainge will still have a decent first round pick in the NBA Draft at his disposal, the remainder of the Gordon Hayward TPE, a handful of possible exceptions, and of course, the impending free agency of Evan Fournier.
“It’s a very hard question to answer because the emotions are really hard right now with the playoffs and in three weeks, I have to join the (French) national team training camp. And I have free agency to deal with, too. I have a lot on my mind right now,” Fournier said when asked about his future. “It’s obviously an A+ organization. They really showed it. They were excited to get me and showed me a lot of love.”
But even with an uncertain future ahead of them, the Celtics are sure of one thing: Jayson Tatum is a superstar. Tatum finished with 122 points in the final three games of these playoffs that also included a 50-spot in the play-in game. He put up those numbers as Boston’s only real consistent scoring threat and went toe-to-toe with arguably the best player so far in these playoffs, Kevin Durant.
“We saw what he could do. He scored 50 with our backs against the wall. Now we’ll get to see his game mature. He’ll watch film and figure out what he needs to go,” Tristan Thompson said of Tatum. “The kid’s one hell of a player. I think he’ll hold the MVP trophy one day.”
When asked about what the team could do to improve in the offseason, the usually demure Tatum said, “I kind of feel like everybody has their job and I just think my job is to show up and play basketball, not to suggest trades or who to bring in, who to let go. It’s not what I do.”