BOSTON — The red flags peeked through the parquet all season and shot through them starting last round. Tall enough for the entire crowd to see them, the boos returned to TD Garden like in January 2022, and with them, questions about this core as the Boston Celtics prepare to play an elimination game on Thursday.
When the Celtics shot past the Hawks in Game 6 with a shooting surge to overcome a horrible collapse in Game 5, they seemingly absorbed shots from an underrated Atlanta team and coach well-equipped to press Boston’s weaknesses.
A golden opportunity emerged when Joel Embiid sat injured in Game 1 and the Celtics squandered it. Crunch time issues returned in Game 4, when Boston fell to 3-4 in close, late finishes, before the Game 5 no-show threatened the Celtics’ season in mid-May. A surprise, but a not stunning development given the team’s play since their 21-5 start. Head coach Joe Mazzulla, as Brad Stevens said before the playoffs, serves as an easy scapegoat. The issues run deeper.
The series didn’t end on Tuesday, though it already established doubts about this group’s ability to win the championship. After Malcolm Brogdon called out too many double teams, Jaylen Brown pressed for more shots and Joe Mazzulla blamed offensive rather than defensive breakdowns following Game 1, the Celtics largely stopped diagnosing problems publicly after the Game 5 debacle. “On to the next one,” they said. It’s easy to imagine them winning the series if threes fall at this point — and losing it if they don’t.
“(We need to) definitely get more organized, maintain our spacing,” Brown said. “I feel like we got the same looks over and over again. We got a lot of good looks and we didn’t make shots tonight, but I think that we can be better and I think that we will be better.”
Brown disappeared again in the second quarter, not shooting for the first five minutes after a 4-for-6 first quarter where he scored nine points before sitting with foul trouble. He twice asked for more opportunity in the offense and Brown’s early on-ball involvement led to an impressive start for Jayson Tatum too in Boston’s Game 3 win.
Like the defensive intensity that night from Brown and others, that offensive involvement didn’t carry over. Brown shot three times in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 4.
“We’re trying to create space and opportunity for everybody. Drive and kick, pass up a good shot for a great shot and find whoever’s open at that time,” Tatum said. “One of our best players, we want him to be aggressive, we need him to be aggressive and that’s on him and it’s on us and it’s on everybody just to make sure we’re putting each person in the right position.”
Whether Tatum or Mazzulla’s fault, Tatum’s passing to Brown over nine times per game this postseason, the team’s passivity on defense rendered them a turn-style on Tuesday. James Harden continues to pick his matchups whenever he wants and the Celtics give up almost every switch along the perimeter. They drop to lure teams into mid-range shots, an effective tactic in the aggregate now burning them as Joel Embiid heats up from in-between.
Playing smaller and without forcefulness, they allowed key offensive rebounds late in Game 4, Harden isolations on Malcolm Brogdon and Al Horford and Embiid post cross-matches. Boston only forced nine turnovers in Game 5, another reason they’re struggling to generate shot attempt advantages on opponents.
“We shot more free throws, we shot more threes, we didn’t shoot a good percentage,” Mazzulla said. “I have to take a look at our shot quality, but I thought we were getting relatively really good looks. We missed ten wide open threes in the first half that, I think, if they went in, we would’ve felt a little different about ourselves.”
The blame game will start with Mazzulla if those threes don’t fall in Games 6 and 7. While lauding the team’s defense for much of the season, it slid into wild inconsistency in the postseason with individual efforts, scheme breakdowns and mistakes like Brown doubling on Harden’s Game 4 winner from the corner undermining the team’s strength.
Mazzulla’s mindset of picking your poison and giving up the lowest-percentage shot led to Trae Young, Harden and Embiid exploding from that floater and pull-up two pointer area late in series. Many Celtics players admitted Boston didn’t reach the levels it did last season that end throughout the postseason, abandoning their double big frontcourt through a mix of inconsistency, lack of chemistry due to Robert Williams III’s injuries and a desire to play a five-out offense.
“Ime (Udoka) was a little bit more defensively focused than Joe was, which is ok, but that’s just what it was,” Smart told Boston Sports Journal over the weekend. “A lot of the times, Joe was right there with Ime. Ime was going to Joe as well for certain defensive lineups, certain defensive matchups and stuff like that, so Joe’s been there, but now it’s all on him now.”
Mazzulla made the admitted mistake of not calling timeout to finish Game 4 and that could come back to haunt him. It’s also impossible to fully assess Mazzulla’s season without context. He entered it needing to address key offensive shortcomings that cost the team a title last year.
Will Hardy, Damon Stoudamire and Udoka left the bench, doubling the workload across a bench that didn’t add replacements. Mazzulla needed to learn on the job with massive expectations and earn his team’s trust.
“The only way you really confirm trust is by winning a title, in a lot of ways,” Doc Rivers said last week. “Each round, you grow in trust. That’s the point. I try to get guys to see that. I would say the guys who covered the Celtics last year, each round they saw trust grow. That’s just how it works. The regular season is your first barrier, getting through that, then you go through the playoffs, you get tested and you find out if everybody’s going to trust and execute ... even that, the following year, it still comes back. It’s part of growth.”
A 34-year-old back of the bench coach without NBA cachet could not coach in Udoka’s style and succeeded in his own way. Still, phasing Grant Williams out of the rotation, minimizing Williams III’s role and sticking to tight rotations for much of the season left Mazzulla with little flexibility when his regulars didn’t have it in Game 5. Inserting Payton Pritchard in the second half after largely benching him all season felt like a prayer.
All three of those players helped key last year’s run. Now, it’s hard to imagine any of those players winning Game 6 or 7 for Boston.
Responsibility ultimately falls on Tatum and Brown in the end. Tatum’s nearly nonexistent starts in Game 4 and 5 decreased the team’s room for error massively in the following quarters, and he rarely connected with Brown. Tatum’s shooting 40.6% from the field and 25% from three in first quarters this postseason, while Brown averages 12.4 shots per game in the ensuing quarters. Their cohesion atop the Celtics will again become a question if they fall.
The Celtics overcame similar turmoil late in the Milwaukee and Miami series last year, so they’re impossible to rule out. This year looks different though, and even if they erase this deficit and win the series, they formed undeniable doubts about their championship mettle. It’s startling this moment — Game 5 against a team this core has owned — looked too big.
“When you have the intentions of really, really wanting to win, it doesn’t work out for you well sometimes,” Mazzulla said. “I thought we had intentions of really, really wanting to win, and trying to win it. Sometimes when that happens, it has a negative effect, and so I think we just have to play with a freer mind, take a deep breath and regardless of the situation, we’ve just gotta be ready to play.”