By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In sports, you never know how many opportunities you’re going to get. So if, as a team, you find yourself in a spot that nobody predicted you’d be in, it’s vital that you capitalize on that opportunity. Forget about preseason expectations, or even mid-postseason expectations. If you have a chance to win one game to reach a championship series, you have to seize that moment. They are just too rare.
In the Celtics’ case, seizing the moment on Sunday night could have meant many things. With LeBron James in the building, no win would be easy. But as the Celtics showed in their previous 10 home playoff games, when they play their best, they are nearly impossible to beat.
But the Celtics did not play their best in the decisive Game 7. Not even close. They scored 79 points. That’s well off their regular-season average of 104 points per game, and it’s well off their postseason average of 103 points per game heading into Sunday. In fact, it’s seven points below the Celtics’ previous postseason low of 86 points, which came in Game 3 in Cleveland when the starters didn’t even play the fourth quarter.
And if the Celtics had been stifled by some outstanding, relentless Cleveland defense? Well, that would probably be palatable. But the reality is that in this Game 7, the Celtics beat themselves.
No fact tells that story more than this one: On “Wide Open” 3-point attempts, which the NBA defines as shots where the closest defender is at least 6 feet away, the Boston Celtics shot 3-for-17. They look like this:
Run that one back: On wide open 3’s, when zero Cavaliers were within the same zip code as Boston shooters, the Celtics successfully shot 17.6 percent of their 3-point attempts.
In the NBA, where giving up open shots often means death, that is unfathomable.
Here’s how it looked on the wide-open 3’s:
Terry Rozier: 0-for-3
Al Horford: 0-for-1
Marcus Smart: 0-for-2
Jaylen Brown: 1-for-6
Marcus Morris: 1-for-3
Jayson Tatum: 1-for-2
Given the flow of the game, we can point to a few missed 3’s in particular that hurt the most. The misses from Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier coming off back-to-back offensive rebounds by Marcus Smart when the Celtics trailed by four in the fourth quarter were certainly not the best. Likewise, Al Horford’s miss when the Celtics trailed by three points in the final four minutes was another big one.
You could look at almost any shot in the fourth quarter — during which the Celtics went 7-for-21 from the field and 3-for-13 from 3-point range — and spotlight it as a big one. But really, if the Celtics had just knocked down some of those wide-open shots through the course of the game, then the fourth quarter wouldn’t have even been a high-stakes situation. If the Celtics had just hit their normal 38 percent of wide-open 3’s (that was their regular-season average, and it wasn’t even very good), then they would have at least had nine or so extra points to work with in this game. They really would have been in business if they could have equaled their postseason average on Wide Open 3’s, which was 42 percent before Sunday. That would come out to 7-for-17, which makes things a whole lot more comfortable than 3-for-17.
Instead, they saw their 12-point lead evaporate in the second quarter, and the game was a struggle from there.
Wide-open 3’s aren’t the only culprit, either. On 3-point attempts that were just “Open” as opposed to “Wide Open,” where the closest defender is between 4 and 6 feet away from the shooter, the Celtics went 2-for-18. Brown was 1-for-5 on Open 3’s, while Rozier was a mind-blowing 0-for-7.
Here are the numbers for Open 3’s:
Here are the Celtics’ combined totals on the Wide Open and Open 3’s:
TOTAL: 5-for-35 (14.3%)
For comparison’s sake, the Cavaliers didn’t exactly shoot the lights out on their opportunities, but they still hit seven of their 28 Open or Wide Open 3-point attempts. They were also wise enough to start attacking the basket once it was clear that the 3’s weren’t dropping. The Celtics, though, believed the long-range shooting would eventually find its level. They had good reason for that belief.
During the regular season, the Celtics shot 38.2 percent on Open 3’s, which was third-best in the entire league. In the postseason before Sunday, the Celtics hit 32.6 percent of their Open 3’s in the playoffs. If they could have followed their averages in Game 7, the Celtics would have netted 12-15 points.
Obviously, these things don’t happen in a vacuum, so one cannot simply say, “If they hit six more 3’s, the would have won by 10 points.” But as evidenced by the Celtics shooting 5-for-35 on 3’s where the closest defender was at least 4 feet away, this performance had nothing to do with the Cavaliers’ defense and nothing to do with whatever LeBron was doing at the other end of the floor.
This was just about missing shots. Time after time. Again and again. Plain and simple.
“We had wide open shots that just didn’t fall for us. They were shots we’ve been making this whole series, the whole playoffs. Just couldn’t fall tonight,” said Smart, who went 1-for-10 overall and 0-for-4 from 3-point range. “It had nothing to do with pressure. It was just shots that we missed. It’s how it is. We had one of those games. We held them to  points. It wasn’t like we weren’t playing. It’s just that we couldn’t get shots to fall.”
Morris, when asked if he and his teammates were “tight” while shooting, concurred with Smart.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘tight,'” Morris said. “Just missed.”
“It’s one of those things that we felt like we had some good momentum going there [in the second quarter], and then we had some great looks that just literally went in and out and that we missed,” Horford said. “I think they gained some momentum, they made some plays. Earlier in the series at home, we would hit them like that.”
Incredibly, despite the poor shooting throughout the night, the Celtics could have made it all just one big footnote with a nails performance in the closing minutes. As head coach Brad Stevens said, “This team was the only team that I’ve been around at this level that I thought we might shoot 36 percent and win the game.”
But the Celtics were not nails in the final minutes. After Tatum’s monster dunk over LeBron and Tatum’s 27-footer to regain the lead, the Cavs immediately answered with a Jeff Green 3-pointer to reclaim the lead. The Cavs led by two points with 5:44 to play. Over the next five minutes, the Celtics went an abysmal 0-for-10 from the field, including 0-for-7 from 3-point range. The game was over by the time Morris finally broke the field-goal drought with 33 seconds left to play.
It was, in a word, brutal.
It’s one thing if you’re the Houston Rockets, playing without Chris Paul, and you see your 17-point lead evaporate in a potential clincher in Game 6. The Rockets probably lament that blown lead, but they were also overwhelmed by the dynastic greatness of the Golden State Warriors, the likes of which the sport has never seen. It’s another thing entirely when you lose a Game 7 on your home floor. By eight points. To a team that scored 87.
As the dust settles on the loss and reflections are cast upon the season, there will certainly be many positive things said about the performance and the future of the Boston Celtics. Add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to this mix, take Tatum with a full NBA season and long postseason under his belt, get continued improvement out of Jaylen Brown in his third year, and it’d be difficult to see the Celtics as anything but the favorites out of the East next year. Given that Golden State has shown some vulnerabilities this year, maybe the timing is perfect for the Celtics to be in position to win a title or two in the coming three years.
That’s all fantastic. It speaks to the vision of Danny Ainge and the execution of many people involved in the franchise to have so many cards in order for the future, which is undeniably bright.
But two things can be true at the same time. For the Celtics, the future looks great, but the dreadful shooting performance in Game 7 represents a major blown opportunity. They may get a similar chance in the years to come, but they’ll never be able to get that Game 7 back.