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The Celtics may never learn

Dealing with adversity is a fundamental part of life, but the Celtics continuously fail to apply those lessons.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images


That was Joe Mazzulla’s one-word response when asked if he still believes that it’s “always good to go through adversity” after the Boston CelticsGame 5 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

A loss in which the Celtics were up by 13 with 5:58 to go. A loss in which they coughed up the ball five times in the fourth quarter. A loss in which they could have closed out the Hawks and avoided another trip to Atlanta.

Learning from one’s mistakes is a valuable tool, but there comes a point where said learning needs to turn into action.

Boston hasn’t gotten to that point yet.

For the duration of this core’s existence — that’s Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and the surrounding revolving pieces — the Celtics have struggled to close out games. And “struggled” might be putting it lightly.

The Celtics have suffered from a serious case of complacency. When they go up big, they completely change their style of play, and when their opponent jumps at the chance to make a comeback, they fail to kick things into high gear again.

What is usually a vibrant, springy offense turns into sludge. The ball sticks to everyone’s hands, double-teams breed sloppy turnovers, and drive-and-kick three-pointers morph into isolation step-backs.

And so far this postseason, the Celtics, a team defined by their shooting, have failed to hit a three in the clutch. Not a single one. 0-for-6.

On the defensive end, Boston’s crisp rotations shift into a complete meltdown.

In Game 5, the Celtics only turned the ball over nine times, but five were in the last quarter. They shot a subpar 7-of-13 from the free-throw line, and four of those misses were in the fourth. Atlanta only attempted ten free throws, but five were in the final period.

Any and all execution went out the window for the Celtics as they began to count their chickens before they hatched. The fourth quarter was one long inbounds ball roll in an attempt to waste time. Only instead of wasting time, Boston should have been closing out the series.

The Hawks took advantage of the Celtics’ laziness.

“Got to give them credit,” said Jayson Tatum. “They played well. They made big-time shots at the right time.”

Atlanta does deserve credit. They drained shots, they got stops, and they made the most out of an opportunity that was handed to them.

As much as the Hawks should receive recognition, they wouldn’t have been in a position to get it if the Celtics played up to par.

In a two-point win, the Hawks got 10 points off turnovers in the final quarter. In a two-point game, the Celtics missed four free throws. In a two-point game, Trae Young earned five free throws in the last period.

And on the play that put the Celtics to rest, Young was open. He was far behind the three-point line, but he was open. Jaylen Brown got off balance, Boston didn’t send a double team, and Young had already made two threes that quarter.


“I think that we had some bonehead plays,” said Brown. “Some fouls. And we gave them some opportunities to get going.”

Now, there’s nothing else for the Celtics to say after a loss as bitter as the one in Game 5. The only thing left for them to do is take responsibility and get ready for Game 6. And a few days from now, this game might not matter.

But it should.

It revealed that the same lack of discipline that has come back to bite the Celtics so many times in years past is still within them. The signs have been there. One look back to Boston’s three blown double-digit leads at the beginning of March show that.

But through the first four games of this series, it seemed as though that was behind them. Sure, they lost Game 3, but they turned around and fixed the problem in Game 4. Atlanta made some runs, but the Hawks never led past the eight-minute mark in the first quarter.

On Tuesday night with every seat at TD Garden adorned with a “UNFIN18HED BUSINESS” poster for the fans, the Celtics publicized their continued inability to maintain leads. While they can always learn from adversity, it doesn’t seem like they have. And if they haven’t now, at the start of a playoff run flooded with title hopes, there’s a good chance they never will.

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