2023 NBA playoffs: Celtics never tapped into what made them special last year
Forsberg: C's never tapped into what made them special a year ago originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
MIAMI -- Our lasting image of what appears to be a Boston Celtics postseason flameout will be Jimmy Butler waiting for Al Horford at midcourt inside a raucous Kaseya Center then dropping to a knee and mocking Horford’s timeout celebration from the start of what quickly became a lopsided Eastern Conference finals.
Butler mockingly held the pose for a couple seconds as Horford took it all in. At various times this season, Horford and the Celtics used these moments as motivation to fuel inspired play. But on this night, Horford watched his impossibly lifeless team fall behind by as much as 33 as Boston’s season went on life support.
For the Celtics, the 2022-23 season was championship or bust. And this is as busted as the finish can get. Boston has been punked by a flame-throwing No. 8 seed that has gleefully exposed many of the flaws that Boston tried hard to cover up this season.
No team in NBA history has ever rallied out of a 3-0 hole and Boston’s body language in the aftermath of Sunday’s pathetic Game 3 effort did not suggest the Celtics would be the first. The only question remaining is whether the team will put up any sort of fight before welcoming an uncertain offseason.
The crash-scene finish will overshadow most of the successes of the year. The Celtics, who swore they would use the frustrations of last year’s Finals loss to fuel their quest to get back to the title stage, will be forced to take a hard look in the mirror and ponder why they were never fully able to maximize their obvious talents.
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The truth is that Boston never came close to tapping into any of what made them so special a year ago. The Celtics never developed an identity -- outside of being impossibly volatile -- and they never got back to making defense their calling card. The limitations of an overwhelmed first-year coach, combined with a core that hasn’t always responded well to moments of adversity, left the team vulnerable on a big stage.
Running into a Miami team that knows exactly what its identity is, with a championship-tested coach at the helm, at a time when the Heat are overflowing with confidence and bravado, has only accentuated what this Celtics team lacked.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Well, not this. But there were undeniably red flags along the way. Boston’s sizzling start to the season, after a tumultuous summer that included head coach Ime Udoka getting suspended and Robert Williams undergoing a second knee surgery, only reaffirmed sky-high expectations.
But the Celtics spent the final four months of the season being painfully inconsistent. They played down to competition. They relied too heavily on shot-making to dictate their success. A rookie head coach with a staff painfully thin on NBA experience made notable missteps. Joe Mazzulla’s stubbornness with timeouts, and troubles pressing the right buttons with personnel in late-game situations, didn’t help steady a core that had shown it sometimes needs an adult in the room to save them from themselves.
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From night to night it was impossible to know exactly what to expect from this team. And yet their potential was undeniable. Talent masked some of the team’s character flaws.
When Boston made shots, it looked really good. Despite being unable to get out of their own way at times, the Celtics always seemed to find a way to persevere, including a valiant fight to extend their season at the end of the Sixers series.
But you just never saw the “we’re not a track team” swagger that Boston dripped at the end of the 2021-22 season while absolutely steamrolling the league in the second half of the year before its rollercoaster run to the Finals.
An unceremonious exit will force some hard conversations this summer. There could be some heavy tinkering around the Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown core. Mazzulla deserves some criticism but we suspect he’ll be back, maybe with some veteran coaching experience added to his staff.
But there is no way to sugarcoat it. The Celtics season will end in major disappointment, particularly given how agreeable the path back to the title stage became. Miami deserves a ton of credit for the way it has played but the Celtics put themselves in a bind by fumbling away the first two games of the series. They put themselves in a position where Butler could take control.
That’s why the Butler/Horford timeout scene will linger. The Heat are simply mocking the Celtics in this series, laughing at them and their inability to punch back.
Boston must now decide how it wants this all to end. After Mazzulla put the blame on himself for Boston’s no show in Game 3, will the team fight for its coach? If the Celtics roll over twice at the finish line, that only adds a layer of intrigue to what comes next.
There will be plenty of time moving forward to ponder what needs to change for the Celtics to rebuild their identity and develop a swagger. But so much of it seems to trace back to the intangibles.
The Celtics had all the talent and potential. They never figured out who they wanted to be. And another long summer of wondering what could have been awaits.