Had the Boston Celtics been swept by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, as seemed likely a week ago, there would have been undeniable pressure on president of basketball operations Brad Stevens and majority owner Wyc Grousbeck to initiate major changes in the coming weeks and months.
After an even bigger gut punch, the end result won’t be any different.
For all the character the Celtics showed to push this series to Game 7, the way this team met its end on Monday night was as strange and confounding as this postseason itself.
At the very moment it seemed like the Celtics were going to be the first team in NBA history to erase a 3-0 series deficit, they went back home, reverted to their worst characteristics and were blown out, 103-84. And as a result, questions about their roster construction, chemistry, coaching and collective heart are unlikely to go away.
The angst that will flow from failing to close the deal in Boston is appropriate and fair. This was a terrible, inexcusable series to lose against an inferior Miami team that was missing multiple key players throughout. Even when the Celtics pulled things back from down 3-0 to 3-3, they felt like favorites ― only to once again disappoint when a comeback was within reach. It feels like something that will reverberate for a long time to come.
As the Celtics exit the 2022-23 season, however, and head into an offseason of greater unknowns than anyone could have predicted a few weeks ago, it’s worth keeping this in mind: They were one of the last four teams standing this year. They were in the NBA Finals just a year ago. And in total, a core built around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown has reached the conference finals four times in six seasons.
You shouldn’t throw that away because of one bitterly disappointing outcome. You can’t lose patience because you keep coming up short of a title. You don’t start over on everything you’ve built because a super-hot Miami team made all of your issues look bigger than they really are.
Do the Celtics need to make some changes? Sure. But to rewrite the blueprint that has led to so much success or even consider breaking up Tatum and Brown? Be careful what you wish for.
The easy thing to do would be firing coach Joe Mazzulla, the 34-year-old former West Virginia player who was cast into this position because of an investigation into Ime Udoka’s workplace conduct that came to light last September and revealed multiple, but unspecified, violations of team policy.
Mazzulla was not ready for this job, but there should never have been any expectation he would be. There are plenty of great coaches who never played in the NBA, but generally they have spent years preparing and learning before they got their shot.
A mere four years ago, Mazzulla was the head coach at Division II Fairmont State. Why did anyone think he was ready to match wits with Erik Spoelstra?
And yet, the Celtics thought enough of him to elevate him to Udoka’s position — bypassing the far more experienced Damon Stoudamire, who was also on the Celtics’ bench — and then give him a long-term contract in February.
None of that is his fault, and yet this series got to the point where Mazzulla making a minor adjustment or calling a timeout to stop a run seemed notable. That’s not ideal when you have a team in the middle of its championship window.
Everything counts in these series, and it’s hard to win when you’re consistently losing on the coaching margins. So it would be easy to imagine Boston thanking Mazzulla for his time and hiring one of the more experienced coaches on the market like Monty Williams.
Perhaps there were some things Boston left on the table in these playoffs because of a coaching deficit, but this did not feel like a series where the Celtics were one adjustment or a different rotation away from winning. When you lose the way the Celtics lost to the Heat, it’s about more than the guy with a clipboard.
The more meaningful questions for Boston are a lot harder to answer.
With Brown eligible for an extension this summer and Tatum next summer, the Celtics could legitimately have to tie up more than $600 million to keep them into their early 30s. That’s not just a lot of money, it’s a massive commitment of salary cap that would certainly make the Celtics nervous if they believe that duo has already maxed out.
There are other issues, too. Was Marcus Smart’s defensive regression this season a blip or a warning? Do the Celtics need more dynamic playmaking from the point guard position than what Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White provide? Will the Celtics ever figure out the center position between Robert Williams, who is on a great contract for the next three seasons but injury prone, and 36-year-old Al Horford who doesn’t move the way he used to? Are they too reliant on 3-point shooting?
Monday’s loss was a microcosm of why it would be easy to justify more than a minor overhaul. When Tatum turned his ankle on the first possession of the game and was clearly hobbled throughout, the Celtics needed Brown to be a max contract guy. He was decidedly not, committing eight turnovers and scoring 19 points on 23 shots. And when they needed to generate offense against the Heat’s junky zone defense, Boston settled for a lot of 3s ― which is very much their style of play but not a very effective style when you shoot 9-for-42 in Game 7.
With their collection of depth and players under contract, the Celtics could make a lot of moves or very few. They could blame the coach or the players. They could split up their two superstars or double down.
Or they could simply look at this series as an anomaly where someone like Caleb Martin, who was a 9.6 point-per-game wing for Miami in the regular season, got into a zone and shot 60 percent for the series, including 22-of-45 from the 3-point line. On the other hand, it’s pretty embarrassing to lose a series in which Martin was the opponent’s best offensive player.
The range of problems and solutions probably makes it tougher, not easier, for Stevens to identify how to reshape the program and optimize what the Celtics are capable of. On one hand, it was just a bad series. On the other, they messed around against the Atlanta Hawks and nearly lost to the Philadelphia 76ers, too. And the Celtics’ vulnerability being tied to stretches of poor shooting is an issue that stretches back several seasons.
So now it’s all on the table. Despite the consistent success over multiple postseasons, fans will demand big moves after this debacle. Stevens, a conservative and thoughtful person by nature, may be inclined to work on the margins.
It all adds up to one of the most fascinating offseasons in the NBA’s recent memory — and, thanks to the Heat, one that came a lot faster than anyone anticipated.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.