BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics had an impressive regular season and looked like true title contenders through the first six games of the playoffs. Then reality hit, and with the Celtics getting outplayed by the fifth-seeded Miami Heat throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, something became very clear about the team.
“We learned, collectively, that we aren’t good enough,” Danny Ainge said Thursday.
That’s a pretty blunt assessment from Boston’s president of basketball ops., but it’s hard not to reach that conclusion after watching the Celtics let fourth quarter leads slip away in all six of their games against Miami. Boston was outmuscled and outhustled by the Heat throughout the series, a dose of reality for everyone on the roster.
“It’s a fair assessment that we weren’t as strong as we needed to be,” Ainge said.
Ainge admitted that he tried to pull off some moves at the trade deadline that would have helped the team on that front, but none of them came to fruition. Now he’ll attempt to do the same this offseason.
“We have some work to do, no question about it. I’m not overreacting to a tough loss to a good opponent. There are things we tried to do at the deadline that we weren’t able to do, and there are things I’d like to do now during the offseason to make the team better. But we have a lot to do,” said Ainge.
Ainge still believes the Celtics are a better team than the Heat, but they didn’t play that way when it mattered most.
“We got beat, and that’s what it comes down to. If we played it again tomorrow I think we’d have a chance and we could beat them. Not that I’m saying for sure, that would diminish them. But we feel we can beat Miami, but we didn’t,” he said. “They played better down the stretch in the series. I have great respect for them and all they accomplished. We didn’t win, they were better than us right now and we’re going to try to get better.”
Losing in the Conference Finals for the third time in the last four years was a bitter end to an otherwise promising 2019-20 Celtics season. Ainge was pleased with the growth that several players showed throughout the campaign, starting with rising stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
“I’ve been impressed with the development of our young players and how good they’ve been getting. I think Jaylen and Jayson are very special, and [Marcus] Smart played an important role as a complementary piece. I learned how good Kemba [Walker] and Gordon [Hayward] are when they’re healthy and how good our team is when we’re healthy,” said Ainge.
Ainge was also pleased with how the team’s chemistry grew throughout the year, and he noted how he didn’t see the locker room brouhaha in the conference finals as a discouraging sign in that regard.
“I would say the entire year, I heard nothing from our players or coaches through Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, I never heard anything but how positive a culture it was and how great of a team we had. It was a joy to be around and watch them play. I liked this team and how they competed,” he said. “Then we had an incident in the Eastern Conference Finals that put that all in question. I would just say that I, personally, have been around a long time, and I wouldn’t overreact to those. Our chemistry for sure was enhanced this year, and our team was enhanced by the chemistry and culture that was here.”
Now the focus is on making the team even better so they can get over the hump and compete for a title next season. And even though the main pieces appear to be in place, that won’t stop Ainge from taking an aggressive approach to making the Celtics better this offseason.