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MILWAUKEE — The epitaph for the Boston Celtics’ season had been written long before the Milwaukee Bucks put them out of their misery with four straight decisive wins, as Boston succumbed 116-91 Wednesday in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Fiserv Forum.
It was written long before the third quarter of Game 3, when the Bucks realized these weren’t the big, bad Celtics from a year ago, that this version was more bark than bite.
Every warning shot that was meant to be a wakeup call for Boston was actually an alarm, ominous reminders that currency doesn’t carry over from previous seasons and that playing with expectations is much different than being overachievers.
Kyrie Irving learned that being “the man” is a lot more than playing freely or speaking in riddles, and his inexperience was on display with every public misstep and ill-fated attempt to galvanize his teammates.
His shoot-till-it-feels-better strategy didn’t work either as he hit just 32 percent from the field in the final three games, illustrating that he’s probably better as a co-star than a leading man. Being a face of the franchise doesn’t come with a manual, but being poised and controlled through the storms of an 82-game season is probably in the first chapter.
“These guys are also young men, and there's a lot of pressure to live up to all these expectations and put on a cape to do all these things and it's hard to do,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
But just because the cape was too heavy for Irving doesn’t mean he’s the only one who should wear the stink of an underwhelming season and finish. Irving holds a large key to the Celtics’ future, but it certainly looked like he mentally packed his bags to go somewhere — anywhere — besides Boston.
If he stays, perhaps Boston can go all-in for superstars and this will be a blip in the large book of Celtics lore. But if things are as uncertain as they appear, this season will be looked at as an opportunity missed because smart people got a little too smart.
This falls on all the faces of the Celtics masthead, men who’ve escaped large swaths of criticism this season because their track records called for leeway.
Stevens fell on his sword in the postgame, the coach who could do no wrong his first several seasons as he ushered in better-than-expected teams, drawing praise that bordered on Popovichian levels but without the jewelry.
“I did a bad job. At the end of the day, your team doesn't find its best fit together, it's on you,” Stevens said. “I'll be the first to say, as far as any other year I've been a head coach, it's certainly been the most trying.”
If Irving has any saving grace, he can rely on the fact it was his first time in a leadership position. But Stevens is no longer the boy wonder, tied with Philadelphia’s Brett Brown for the second-longest tenure in the East behind Miami’s Erik Spoelstra.
His teams have gone to the last two Eastern Conference finals, but those were try-hard squads that didn’t take much cajoling. He deserves credit for the development of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, but integrating a $30 million-a-year Gordon Hayward recovering from a major injury went about as rough as anyone could’ve imagined.
“I've always referenced Jayson and Jaylen. I can't imagine handling what they have to handle at 22. I just can't fathom it. I would've cracked long, long ago, right? Those guys have done a really good job of staying the course and trying to be the best they can be,” Stevens said.
He was exposed, perhaps, as not being great with the people-management part of the business — the one aspect today’s NBA is more about than the X’s and O’s. It isn’t easy dealing with players who want more — more shots, more minutes, more money.
It doesn’t mean Stevens is a bad coach, or that he deserves some severe reprimand. But by his own admission, he’s in for a summer full of reflection and, hopefully, improvement.
“Everybody was running around with their heads cut off, like chickens,” backup point guard Terry Rozier III told Yahoo Sports. “Coach was in a tough position, one of the toughest positions, dealing with all these guys with attitudes, all that sh--. Guys that's All-Stars, guys getting paid a lot of money, guys trying to get paid. It's tough.”
Rozier said he saw it on the first day of training camp, so many talented players who could make a case for bigger roles.
“I feel like I sacrificed the most, but I’d do it any day for this team,” Rozier told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of things weren't fair to me, but it's not about me. That's why I don't bitch and complain.”
And too many times it seemed like the players were using the media as therapists as opposed to team leadership being exercised. As much as it is a players’ league, Stevens appeared to sit by idly while issues festered — issues that might’ve been alleviated if not for the awkward roster construction and inactivity at the trade deadline while every Eastern Conference contender improved.
“There were a couple teams that were really building toward something, and sometimes that goes unnoticed. … [The Bucks are] better than we are, they earned that,” Stevens said. “And it was clear during a five-game series. ”
But the Bucks weren’t supposed to be. This was the year the Celtics had been building toward once the haul from their monumental trade with the Brooklyn Nets bore so much ripe fruit and with LeBron James in the West.
No LeBron? No excuses, Danny Ainge.
The tightrope the franchise walked between maximizing the present while preserving flexibility for the future snapped, as the endless speculation about Irving’s free agency and a certain superstar big man in the Bayou were too much for young players still growing into their games.
“I don't want to speculate for individuals, but it's no question they have TV's, they have phones, they hear everything,” Stevens said.
It’s hard to ignore the self-induced noise when the back of your jersey might as well say “future trade asset” and the front office does very little to quell the speculation. There’s a fine line between being coy and being slick, and the Celtics perhaps got too cute for their own good.
“I don't give a f--- what nobody say, I sacrificed the most out of anybody. I'm a top point guard in this league. I feel like it's a fresh start, whether I'm here or whether I'm gone,” said Rozier, a star last postseason in Irving’s absence who’s about to hit restricted free agency in July.
There’s a reason Milwaukee added Nikola Mirotic, Philadelphia swung for the fences with Tobias Harris, and Toronto poached Marc Gasol from Memphis at the trade deadline. They all knew the Celtics were playing a different game and sensed an opportunity, while the Celtics swore everything would turn up once the weather cleared for spring.
The only thing that cleared up was our vision of a team that had given us so many reasons to place them in the pile of mediocre, with a leader whose future is as uncertain as the franchise that’s done so much in the name of said future.
“The other thing I've told the team in there, the stuff we've been through, they'll all be better because of [this],” Stevens said. “It didn't show itself on this stage, by any means. They'll all be better because of it, we learned a lot.”
Hopefully, lesson No. 1 is: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
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