All things considered, things could have gone worse for the Boston Celtics this postseason. After all, they managed to win one game in the series—something that the Miami Heat were unable to do during their playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. They even showed some life in their Game 1 loss, something which suggested that they might have figured out a way to neutralize an overwhelming Nets offense. Instead, the Nets took these two punches and swung back hard, eventually beating the Celtics 123-109 in Game 5, mercifully putting an end to the most frustrating Celtics season of the Brad Stevens era.
It would have been a more painful defeat if these Celtics came into the postseason with any sort of chance against the Nets. Even if the team were fully healthy, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden make for a daunting first-round opponent for any team in the league. When it turned out that Jaylen Brown, Boston’s most consistent player all year round, would be out for whatever remained of the season with a wrist injury, it really felt like a gentleman’s sweep was the most likely way this would end.
Tatum’s 50 point performance in Game 3, really the only true highlight of the Celtics’ brief postseason run, assured them one playoff win but it turned out to be a trick he could only pull off once. When it was announced before Game 5 that neither Robert Williams or Kemba Walker, the night’s outcome felt beyond predetermined. The relatively drama-free game was a fittingly anticlimactic end to a barely-there postseason series. If Boston’s 2021 playoff cameo will be remembered at all, it will probably be remembered for the Celtics “fan” (who was later arrested) who decided it would be a good idea to throw a water bottle at Irving after the Game 4 loss that essentially decided the series.
All that’s left for the 2020-21 Celtics season is the autopsy. It’s almost impossible to list all the things that went wrong for Boston starting with Gordon Hayward opting out of his contract and signing with the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Offseason surgery kept Kemba Walker out of the lineup for the first few months of the year as part of a season-wide trend of Covid-19 protocols and standard basketball injuries preventing them from ever putting together their best roster. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum stepped up with career years but the bench was mostly unreliable. Even trade deadline acquisition Evan Fournier never could get the minutes he needed with his new team.
Now, if all their problems were due to these outside factors, this Celtics season wouldn’t have felt as painful as it did. Unfortunately, there were long stretches where their problem seemed to be one of effort, something which players and head coach alike would admit to after particularly deflating losses. For whatever reason, this team never played up to the amount of talent on its roster, even when accounting for the staggering amount of minutes missed by many of their most important players.
The defense in particular seemed to wax-and-wane and the team had a tendency to “flip the switch” late in games, turning potential double-digit defeats into close losses. No team in recent memory has won as many moral victories as this Celtics team, it feels like, but moral victories aren’t the ones that show up in the standings. A team this talented should not have fallen to seventh-place in the regular season standings, something which forced them into a play-in game against the Washington Wizards and ensured that they would be facing a Nets team in the first round.
Some of this was on roster construction, some of this was on coaching and some of this was on the players. It’s now up to the Celtics to start the grueling process of diagnosing the team’s problems and trying to find solutions. The good news, such as it is, is that their early elimination gives them plenty of time to do just that.