By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics season is over, and that really, really stinks. Boston came up short in its quest for a title down in the bubble, once again falling in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That’s a bit disappointing, considering how much the Celtics had going for them down in Orlando. They looked like title contenders at points in every game against the Heat, but Miami made all the big plays and runs they had to, and the Celtics rarely had an answer. The Celtics were their own worst enemy in their four losses, and they have to feel that going home before the Finals was a giant missed opportunity.
While we’ll be focusing on the end of the season until next season tips off, there is a lot to take away from the unique 2019-20 season, and much of it is positive for the Celtics. Here’s a quick rundown of the stuff we learned along the way:
They’re Still Not Ready For The Big Moments
The Celtics probably should be getting ready to take on the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Alas, the Celtics aren’t getting ready to take on the Lakers in the NBA Finals, and Celtics fans now have to pick between the Lakers and the Heat. How dare they put us in such a precarious isituation.
And the Celtics have no one to blame but themselves. Going back to the East Semis against Toronto, the Celtics had a real knack for letting leads slip away thanks to their inability to close out opponents. They did it in a number of ways, whether it was going cold on offense or relying too much on hero ball, or losing assignments on defense. They also let the officials get in their heads way too much throughout the playoffs.
If there was a way for the Celtics to lose a game, they found it. Bad stretches turned into bad quarters and then into bad halves. When things went wrong, the Celtics usually let it get worse before it got better.
That falls on everyone. On Brad Stevens for his leadership, on players for their inability to suppress game-changing runs, and on Danny Ainge for not getting even the slightest bit aggressive on draft night (using all three picks) or deadline day. Everyone needs to get better, because if the Celtics find themselves in this spot next year — or worse, they don’t make it as far — then it will be time for some changes.
Celtics Need To Get Angry
The Celtics have now lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four years. But after Sunday night, no one seemed too ticked off about it.
Getting to go home after being away from family for nearly three months likely played into that, but it’d be nice if the C’s got a little upset over the season ending early once again. Three years ago, the team made a surprising run to the conference finals and lost to the Cavs in five games. The following year they were back despite injuries to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, with Tatum and Brown leading a surprising run to Game 7 against LeBron in his final year in Cleveland. Last year, the Celtics disastrously lost in the second round, thanks mostly to a guy chucking up aimless shots for five games against Milwaukee.
There were silver linings and excuses built in to the end of the three previous seasons. This year, it just feels like a giant missed opportunity. Milwaukee was cooked in the second round. The C’s beat the defending champs to make it back to the conference finals, where they were facing a five-seed. If they made it to the Finals, there would be no home-court advantage in the NBA’s bubble setting — which could have been an equalizer against the Lakers.
Instead the Celtics are coming home empty-handed, something they should be pretty miffed about. That fire will likely burn a lot hotter as the offseason goes on (and on and on and on, with no clear return date just yet), and hopefully that gives the team all the motivation they need going forward.
But the climb is going to be a lot harder next season, with Miami now a legit threat, Kyrie and Kevin Durant set to return for Brooklyn, and Milwaukee seemingly set to do anything and everything it can to keep Giannis happy. Boston is going to need that motivation — and a few more pieces — to reach the Finals next season.
Tatum Is Going To Be An Absolute Star
OK, those first two were a bit of a downer. And for someone who always looks on the bright side (mostly looks on the bright side), I’ll toss on my green footie pajamas and keep it sunshine and lollipops the rest of the way. For the most part…
Let’s talk about Tatum. Did you know he’s only 22? And he’s already pretty awesome.
Tatum did some spectacular things throughout the regular season and playoffs, scoring lots and lots of points for the Celtics. He stopped settling and forcing those long twos that frustrated everyone last season, and became a much more efficient player on offense. He also showed that he’s a pretty talented rebounder and playmaker for others, all of which was on full display throughout the playoffs. His incredible passing opens up so much for the Boston offense.
And on the other side, Tatum made giant leaps in his defensive game, adding blocks steals and some lock-down D to his repertoire to become a complete package for the Celtics in just his third NBA season.
There is still room for improvement, and he needs to hone in on his own kind of “Mamba Mentality” and take over games. But Tatum is the cornerstone of the Celtics, and that makes the future very bright for the player and the franchise. You need a star to win in the NBA, and the Celtics have one in Tatum.
Jaylen Brown Is All-Around Awesome
Brown’s game made giant leaps as well, and against the Heat, he was Boston’s best player. Brown has this overall tenacity on both ends of the floor, and he should keep getting better. That five-year extension Ainge gave him before the season looks better every day.
Like Tatum, there is plenty of room for improvement. You can knock Brown for his occasionally spotty shot selection (he should drive a lot more than he does) and the risks he takes on help defense, but the kid has passion like few others.
That doesn’t even bring up everything he does in the locker room and off the court. Brown’s biggest impact on society will likely come when his playing days are over, but until then, he’s going to do a lot of great things for the Celtics.
Kemba Is A Solid Leader — And Should Be Better Next Season
Kemba Walker was everything the Celtics needed in his first season in Boston. He was happy to finally be on a team where he didn’t have to do everything in order for them to succeed, and he was more than happy to provide the necessary leadership in the locker room.
He wasn’t great in the playoffs, and his slumps really hurt the Celtics against Toronto and Miami. But he kept hitting big shot after big shot come crunch time. His first deep postseason run could have been a lot better, but now he knows what to expect the next time the Celtics are in that situation. Kemba isn’t getting any younger, but now he has the experience to go along with his skills.
Hayward Should Be Back
Hayward had his best season in green, but he was also hurt again when Boston needed him most. He played OK in his four games against the Heat upon his return, but we may be singing a different tune today had Hayward been healthy for this postseason run.
He made an extremely tough decision when he chose to stay with the team instead of leaving the bubble for the birth of his son, and deserves praise for that. But it’s clear that the Celtics can’t count on Hayward to stay healthy. He’ll have another season to prove himself worthy of that max contract, because there is no way he walks away from a $34 million player option. That may make him a trade candidate, but Ainge may have a tough time finding a dance partner at that price tag.
HEY DANNY, YOUR TEAM NEEDS A BENCH SCORER
Hayward should have been the bench scorer Boston needed against the Heat. He played his Swiss Army Knife role and the offense looked better when he got back into the mix, but the Celtics need a bona fide scorer off the pine. This is where Ainge has failed them in recent years.
Boston’s inactivity at the trade deadline is understandable, because the asking price at the deadline is usually ridiculous (an Isaiah Thomas trade notwithstanding). But Ainge could have helped this team on draft night, either by using his trio of picks to move up ahead of their first pick at No. 14 or packaging those picks for a veteran to help the bench. He did neither, and the Celtics ended up with Romeo Langford and Grant Williams. Langford did very little this season, while Williams gave them some solid — but sporadic — minutes off the bench. Both players may be good eventually, but the Celtics could have really used someone to make an impact in the present.
Enes Kanter gave the C’s some scoring punch off the bench at times, but he is such an easy target for opponents on the defensive end that it was basically a wash. Hopefully, veterans will see themselves as a potential missing piece for the Celtics and give Boston a try rather than signing with L.A. this summer.
Time For TimeLord To Have A Bigger Role
Health is always the biggest factor with Robert Williams III, but he makes his presence known when he’s on the floor. The big man still has a lot of edges to smooth in his game, as he bites on way too many upfakes, but he is a ball of energy whenever he’s out there. The only way for him to get better is more playing time, and he should get plenty of that in 2021 — as long as he’s healthy.
Danny Can’t Make Three More Picks
The Celtics have a trio of first-round selections once again — Nos. 14, 26, 30 — and there is no way Ainge can use all three come Nov. 18. Right?
The Boston roster is full, and there is no need to add three more rookies to the mix. Ainge needs to do what he should have done last year and package some of the picks to move up or find a solid veteran to round out the bench.
The Celtics Are Fun Again
The end of this season is disappointing for sure. But overall, it was fun to watch the Celtics again, which was not the case with last year’s team. It was a joy to watch Tatum and Brown’s development, Walker’s fit, and the team become a team throughout the season. Think of where the team was after last season, when they lost two max contract players and got nothing in return, and where they ended up this year.
Now they just need to turn themselves into winners.