Celtics Hit Another Dead End, With No Clear Path Forward This Time

The curtains closed on Monday night for the Boston Celtics’s Jekyll and Hyde routine.

One hundred fifty N.B.A. teams had tried and failed to overcome a 3-0 playoff series deficit. The Celtics made it 151 with their loss against the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. The final game in a series full of momentum swings was not competitive: Miami led by double digits for most of the night and won comfortably, 103-84. It was Boston’s third home loss of the series and a bitter disappointment for a team that reached the N.B.A. finals last season and had been expecting to return.

“We failed, I failed,” a despondent Jaylen Brown told reporters after the game. “We let the whole city down.”

For much of the regular season and this playoff run, the Celtics alternated between looking like an unstoppable offensive juggernaut (Games 4 and 5 against Miami) and appearing listless and uninspired (Games 3 and 7). Very few leading contenders for a championship have vacillated as wildly from night to night, from dominant to dominated, as the Celtics had this season. But entering the playoffs, the Celtics still harbored championship hopes, confident that their franchise centerpieces, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and a versatile roster ready to supplement them would find a way to win.

For most of their careers, Tatum, 25, and Brown, 26, had led unexpectedly deep postseason runs. Beating expectations became their brand. This year was their fourth time making at least the conference finals in the past six years.

Yet after Boston lost to the Golden State Warriors in the N.B.A. finals last season, this was the year that the bar was raised. A championship was the goal. Tatum, Brown and their teammates could no longer merely exceed expectations: The Celtics were the expected.

Instead, the Celtics will now have to contemplate if Brown and Tatum can be the partnership that carries this team over the final hurdle. And the Celtics’ ownership, along with the team president, Brad Stevens, will have to decide if Joe Mazzulla, the 34-year-old head coach with only one season under his belt, is the right person to lead the team.

Mazzulla was unexpectedly given the job just before training camp in September after the abrupt suspension and eventual firing of Ime Udoka.

He was a surprising choice: His only head coaching experience was at Fairmont State, a Division II program in West Virginia, and he had been an N.B.A. assistant for three years. He was suddenly given the task of taking a team to the top of the mountain.

One of the Celtics’ big acquisitions last summer, forward Danilo Gallinari, tore a knee ligament and missed the season. And one of the team’s defensive anchors, Robert Williams III, didn’t make his debut until April after a knee injury. Still, Mazzulla got the Celtics off to a blistering 21-5 start.

But in the regular season, the Celtics fell into stretches of lackadaisical, head-scratching play, as when they blew a 28-point lead to the Nets in March. That carried over into the playoffs: Against the Heat, the Celtics routinely blew double-digit leads. Yet they still clawed their way to the doorstep of the N.B.A. finals.

“It’s something that continues to happen,” Celtics center Al Horford said of the team’s shifting performances. “It’s a pattern that happens with us. We’re going to have to do some soul-searching there, because some things have to change in that regard.”

For some, the verdict is clear: Swings like that are not good enough. Mazzulla, with his penchant for not calling timeouts and guiding the Celtics to flat efforts like Monday night’s, isn’t the right person for the job.

To those who like their glasses half full, Mazzulla’s first year as coach, without a full off-season to prepare, was impressive. He hastily put together a system that led to the second-best offense and defense in the N.B.A. Tatum and Brown had their best seasons. As for suggestions that his inexperience made him unfit for the job, Mazzulla will now have a year of experience, a deep playoff run under his belt and a full off-season to make changes. And his biggest star offered his support on Monday.

“I think Joe did a great job — we won 50-some odd games,” Tatum said. “ We got to Game 7, conference finals. Obviously, everybody can be better, learn from this. But I think Joe did a great job.”

Some of this decision-making about roster construction before next season may not be up to Boston at all. The team doesn’t have cap space or particularly valuable draft picks. Brown, who made the All-N.B.A. second team this year, is a free agent after next season. He is eligible for a contract extension worth close to $300 million if he chooses to stay with the Celtics, an amount no other team can offer him.

Boston’s biggest roster problem is that under the N.B.A.’s new collective bargaining agreement, higher spending teams face more restrictions in building their rosters. This means that keeping Tatum and Brown together may be close to impossible for the Celtics, even if they want to continue to build around them.

And Brown may not want to stay. In multiple interviews this season, Brown has expressed reservations about life in Boston.

Asked Monday night about his thought process entering the off-season as he considers a potential contract extension, Brown paused for several seconds.

“I don’t even really know how to answer that question right now, to be honest,” Brown said.

Tatum was more clear: He said it was “extremely important” that Brown be re-signed.

“He’s one of the best players in this league,” Tatum said. “He plays both ends of the ball and still is relatively young. And he’s accomplished a lot so far in his career. So I think it’s extremely important.”

Brown certainly grew this season. At times, he, not Tatum, was the team’s best player. But in the playoffs, Brown was again unreliable, and defenses focused on his biggest weakness: ball handling.

This is the conundrum for the Celtics. It’s entirely possible — even likely — that the Celtics haven’t seen the best of Tatum and Brown, given their ages. With a summer of preparation for Mazzulla, another jump from Tatum and Brown and a fully healthy roster, they will surely be in title contention again. Growth doesn’t have to be linear.

That’s the easy and convenient solution. But what if this is the limit for the best young tandem in the league? With the N.B.A.’s stringent cap limitations, the Celtics don’t have a lot of ways to get better that don’t involve moving on from Brown.

The Celtics faced a similar quandary two decades ago with Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, two beloved All-Stars. At the time, they were at around the same ages and stages of their careers as Tatum and Brown are now. Pierce was clearly the better player, but Walker helped Pierce lead the team to the conference finals in 2002. When Danny Ainge took over the team’s basketball operations the next year, he tore down the team and traded Walker, gambling that he and Pierce had peaked as a pairing. The fan base was initially irritated, but the move ultimately paid off with a championship in 2008.

There’s a thin line between true contenders and high-level pretenders in the N.B.A. Now that their latest title pursuit has come up short, the Celtics face difficult questions about which path forward puts the team firmly in the contender camp.

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