Celtics in a familiar position after Game 5 loss, but this year feels different
Forsberg: Celtics are in a familiar spot, but this year feels different originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics’ season is on the brink. We’d love to tell you that ought to inspire an urgency that’s been missing from this team for the better part of five months now. But it’s hard sometimes to figure our exactly what drives this team.
We were told all offseason that the pain of coming up short in the NBA Finals would fuel them. A red carpet was rolled out this postseason, and the Celtics just sorta shrugged. Coming off a head-slapping finish to Game 4 in Philadelphia, we were told Game 5 was a must-win and that the team would bring its "A game." Boston responded with its biggest dud of the playoffs and the team was booed repeatedly inside TD Garden on Tuesday night.
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Urgency -- or Boston’s lack of it -- has been our concern for much of the season. People wondered why we lost our mind with every half-assed effort against inferior competition, or the team’s maddening propensity to falter in crunch-time situations. There were red flags that were blissfully ignored. We were told the team was just bored with the regular season.
They must be bored with the playoffs now, too.
The Sixers undoubtedly deserve credit for putting Boston in this spot. Doc Rivers, with his abundance of postseason experience, has out-schemed Boston rookie coach Joe Mazzulla. Joel Embiid has been a beast, even while working his way back from the knee ailment. James Harden has basically willed the Sixers to two wins.
Alas, we can’t help but feel like much of Boston’s issues are self-inflicted. And if the team’s lack of urgency and focus ultimately spells its demise, there will be an awful lot of wondering what could have been.
Scal, Eddie House react to Game 5 loss: 'Zero resistance' from C's
This could have been easier. After watching the Bucks stiff-arm their stated quest to secure the No. 1 seed, the Celtics got about as favorable a draw as they could have asked for this postseason. The Celtics had a chance to close out the play-in Hawks in five games and accelerate the start of the 76ers series while Embiid’s health was still uncertain. Instead, Boston dropped Game 5 at home, had to go on the road to close out Atlanta, and bought the Sixers extra time to ready Embiid.
That was just the start of complicating things. Boston (quite literally) fumbled away Game 1 of the East semifinals with Embiid on the sideline. They let Harden -- the only player capable of singlehandedly carrying the Sixers without the league MVP -- get hot and stay hot that night. He burnt them in the closing moments.
Boston bounced back to win Games 2 and 3. As expected, the Celtics got the Sixers’ best punch in Game 4 and hung in there long enough to make a late surge. Up five late in the fourth quarter, the Celtics had a chance to essentially deliver a knockout punch.
They swung, missed, and somehow smacked themselves in their own kisser.
We don’t need to recap it. Jaylen Brown improbably left Harden for a go-ahead 3-pointer in overtime and the Celtics didn’t even get a final shot off after a series of head-scratching decisions on the final possession of overtime, including Jayson Tatum dribbling out the majority of the clock as Mazzulla hoarded his timeouts.
The Celtics promised to be better in Game 5. They weren’t. At least you didn’t have to worry about crunch time with the Celtics down double digits most of the night.
Boston's rallying cry after Tuesday’s loss was that the team has been here before. The East semifinals played out similarly a year ago. Boston went down 3-2, got an all-time game from Tatum to win Game 6 in Milwaukee, then came home and got a Grant Williams-fueled win in Game 7.
But this feels different. A year ago, the Celtics were puffing out their chests and telling everyone they weren’t a track team. They got a brutal draw, including the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving combo in Round 1, but fought their way to a first-round sweep of the Nets. The Celtics absolutely complicated their path later in the playoffs, and paid the price while running out of gas in the NBA Finals, but it just felt like that team had a certain swagger even when things didn’t tip their way.
The Sixers are not last year’s Bucks, either. The Celtics once had a knack for limiting both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Embiid. The latter has rarely struggled lately. The Bucks didn’t have Khris Middleton a year ago and their supporting cast was underwhelming. The Sixers have Harden and, in Game 5, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris were impact presences.
More importantly, it's anyone’s guess which Celtics team shows up for Game 6 in Philadelphia. Maybe Tatum will shrug off a good-not-great playoffs and dominate again on a big stage. Maybe Brown, fueled by a likely All-NBA nod that could come Wednesday night, will find a way to impact both ends for 48 full minutes. Maybe Mazzulla will make adjustments, push the right buttons, and get the best basketball out of his team.
But no one -- from the superstars to the core players to the supporting cast -- has played to their potential in this series. It’s fair to put blame on Mazzulla, but his players haven’t been great, either. And there’s a history of this core making their lives difficult.
Can this team once again thrive with their back against the wall? The most maddening part is that it didn’t need to be this way.