As the record books get thicker and more volumes are printed, the Celtics’ stirring comeback from an 0-3 deficit will just be another blip like the one-hundred and fifty that came before it. After a 107-88 Game 7 loss on Memorial Day, they become just another footnote in history and after having a chance to rewrite it.
For three straight wins, Boston played with their backs against the wall, a desperation that they seemingly needed to fuel their comeback. But on Monday night with the Eastern Conference Finals tied 3-3, it was Miami who looked more poised and loose to meet the moment.
“I thought we were tight. I thought we played tight,” Malcolm Brogdon said after missing Game 6, but giving it a go in Game 7. “When you play that way, it makes you hesitant on both sides of the ball. I thought Miami played the opposite.”
Gone was that survival instinct to just see another day. A few defensive lapses, the Heat shooting an astonishing 50% of their threes, and a stagnant Celtics offenses compounded the injuries to Jayson Tatum (a sprained ankle on the first game of the play), Malcolm Brogdon, and late, Derrick White. It was certainly not the outcome they expected, in this moment of defeat, it’s easy to forget the entire balance of the season.
“I’m not going to get caught up in the consistency questions and things like that,” Al Horford said after completing his fifth season in green. “We have a good group. We had a lot going on this year and our guys should hold our heads high because we had a lot of adversity. In that locker room, we dealt with a lot of things and our group was very professional, worked really hard, and it’s disappointing that we didn’t get our result.”
“We failed. We wanted to win a championship. That was our goal, but despite that, I’m very proud of that group because there was never any excuse. We went through ups and downs, but we stuck with it.”
Horford and his levelheaded leadership will be back next year after signing a two-year extension. Veterans Brogdon and Derrick White have two seasons remaining on their respective contracts, too. They join the young core of twentysomethings that includes Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams. Jaylen Brown, freshly minted as an All-NBA Second Teamer, is up for a supermax deal this summer with a year left on his rookie extension. Brown wouldn’t get into specifics about possibly re-signing, but Tatum had no doubt.
“It’s extremely important,” Tatum said of his fellow franchise cornerstone. “He’s one of the best players in this league. Plays both ends of the ball. Still relatively young. He’s accomplished a lot so far in his career, so I think it’s extremely important.”
But with their Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals, some questions will be raised. Despite boasting the second most efficient defense in the NBA and flexing it in comebacks vs. the 76ers and Heat, the team suffered a bit of an identity crisis because at times, they set the bar so high that the lows seemed schizophrenic. It was strange coming out of his mouth, but former Defensive Player of the Year called defense “the team’s kryptonite” when their shots weren’t falling.
“It was the issue,” Brogdon said bluntly of the team’s D. “This was a team last year prided themselves on defense. I think defense was their calling card. And this year, offense was our calling card. I don’t think you win championships with a better offense than defense.”
And that might be, in the end, how this team will be judged — on their record versus everyone’s expectations, including theirs. They didn’t hang Banner 18 and that’s a failure.
In turn, wins and losses are the broad strokes of a season’s obituary, especially for this year. Little will be said of the Celtics’ regular season and their 57 wins. Their explosive offense will only be remembered for what many considered had an over-reliance on three-pointers; to wit, in the final ten quarters of their season, they hit just 21-of-91 from behind the arc.
Some of that criticism and conjecture is fair for sure and good food for thought when Brad Stevens considers ways to improve the roster. However, for the most part, that’s the bathwater of what will be another forgotten season (and not soon enough).
But for me personally, the moments are eternal and last forever though. Tatum’s 51 points in Game 7 to close out the 76ers. White’s tip-in in Miami. JB and JT at the All-Star Game. The Bus 1 Boys. All of it. It’ll take time, but that’s all I’ll remember in a year or maybe a decade. And with those memories will come flooding back how I felt about the 2022-2023 Boston Celtics.
“It’s one of the best locker rooms I’ve ever been a part of. The guys cared and gave everything they had,” Joe Mazzulla said after the loss. “That’s the most important thing to take from this. Obviously, we didn’t achieve our goal. We didn’t win. We failed in that regard, but it’s not because the guys didn’t have a sense of togetherness, character, and just who they are as people.”
And so, while many will want to tear this page out of Celtics history, crumple it up, and throw it away, the most important remains of this team will be here next season. Their character won’t fade. Camaraderie will only strengthen from disappointment. Boston will be back.
“We’ve shown that we can get there. We got the conference finals,” Tatum said when asked what’ll take to win a championship in the future. “It’s my fourth time in six years. I’ve been to The Finals once. We had a special opportunity this year. We just fell a little bit short. It’s not like we’re not capable or we don’t have the talent. We do. It just didn’t go our way this year.”