The Celtics left to consider what could have been after losing the Finals originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
BOSTON. No matter how it happens, the end of an NBA season always feels abrupt. It’s like you’re running on a treadmill and someone pulled the plug out of the socket. The next thing you know, you’re hanging upside down from an electronic display, wondering what just happened.
The 2021-2022 Boston Celtics season, which featured an incredible and unprecedented mid-season turnaround and an exhilarating run to the NBA Finals, ended Thursday night with a Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors at TD Garden.
This one is going to sting. The Celtics made it through the playoffs, but they had an unexpected opportunity to do better. The Warriors were brimming with playoff experience but were far from unbeatable.
The Celtics have beaten themselves too often, though the Warriors have certainly played their part in the last two games. Boston couldn’t get out of its own way. The Celtics tossed the ball in batches, their offense turned into a bad isolation habit that defined an ugly first half of the season, and the team failed to show in the Finals the resilience that used to be their hallmark in the postseason.
Boston is left to speculate about what could have been. A quick start in a bustling garden inspired dreams of a Game 7 showdown in San Francisco. Steph Curry and his quick-witted buddies burst that bubble with a 21-0 streak in the second quarter. And no amount of time-outs by Ime Udoka could calm Boston, who were frantically trying to rally in the second half.
The Celtics were five minutes away from a 3-1 series lead. just six days ago. Then everything went to hell. Boston’s offense faltered at the end of Game 4 and then, incredibly, stalled again at the start of Game 5. The Celtics showed confidence heading into Game 6, but unstuck long enough for the Warriors to build a big cushion on Thursday night. .
Even in a city where the championship banner is the only desirable outcome, it would be too harsh to say that the season was a failure because of the outcome of the final.
However, it is fair to regret a missed opportunity, no matter how far-fetched even the possibility of reaching this stage four months ago may seem.
The Celtics were leading 18–21 after an incredibly hard nationally televised loss to the Knicks in early January. After that game, Boston finished 11th in the East and showed little sign of the team they would soon become.
Boston went 33–10 in the last 43 games of the season, posting the best offensive and defensive ratings in the NBA in three dominant months of play. Freshman coach Ime Udoka scoffed at the idea that his team should dodge the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. He pleaded with his team to chase the No. 2 seed and was rewarded with a first-round victory over Kevin Durant and old friend Kyrie Irving.
The path to the NBA Finals soon opened, especially after Bucks All-Star (and Celtics shredder) Chris Middleton missed out on the conference semifinals. However, the Bucks won two of the first three games in Boston, including what was to be a demoralizing triumph in Game 5 at TD Garden. The unflappable Celtics watched Jason Tatum beat Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 6 in Milwaukee and then saddled the unlikely hero Grant Williams to take the win in Game 7.
Boston had to grind again in the eastern final. This time, Jimmy Butler produced an incredible sixth game in Boston to expand on an already hyper-physical streak. The Celtics flew safely to Miami and won on the road to qualify for the Finals.
The title round will leave a sour taste in the sweet season. Udoka actively promoted his young team at the start of the year, but has been rewarded with a monstrous rise in recent months. President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens threw the dice a couple of times during his first year at the helm (especially with the signings of Al Horford and Derrick White), but created a lineup where all parts complemented each other and moved in the same direction.
Jason Tatum has made several strides towards NBA First Team recognition (and finished sixth in MVP voting). Tatum’s struggles in the Finals will cause some to rethink his status in the NBA hierarchy, but the progress he has made, especially as a playmaker, has been undeniable. Thanks to this 24-year-old player, the Celtics have good prospects for the future. He will have no shortage of motivation given how his season ended.
Jaylen Brown not yet finished product. Robert Williams could be the key to Boston’s championship hopes with how he affects the team defensively. Marcus Smart proved he could be a top-level offensive quarterback when he was named starting point guard, and also won Defensive Player of the Year along the way.
The Celtics can’t rely solely on internal development to provide another path to the championship run. Stevens will have the opportunity to improve the team in the off-season, and if the owners are willing to invest in an opponent, the Celtics can further strengthen a roster that has been a bit lean in depth.
The offseason will be short due to Boston’s deep transition, but there will be plenty of time for the Celtics to think about how the Celtics can recharge.
For now, it is important to enjoy the improbability of what has just happened. All that was missing from this season of the storybook was the ending. Perhaps the final scene will motivate the young core so that opportunities like this don’t slip away anymore.
That the Celtics would play basketball in mid-June seemed completely ridiculous just a few months ago. Many laughed when FiveThirtyEight predicted a possible matchup between the Celtics and the Warriors Finals in March, and then it came true.
It will take some time to get rid of the remaining bite. The Celtics fans have a hole in their stomachs because the team thwarted their own quest for an 18th title.
Eventually, this run will be romanticized. Along the way, it felt a bit like a surge led by Isaiah Thomas in 2017. But this team has outdone their coverage; it really had the talent to make it to the finish line of the championship season. He just wasn’t ready for this moment.
There may be other possibilities, although they are never guaranteed. If the Celtics win the title in the future, perhaps this season will be remembered even more fondly. Maybe this is just one of the first chapters in a series of novels about the main elements of this team.
But for now it ends with a cliffhanger. Like your favorite Netflix series, the next season is still a long way off. Waiting to plug that treadmill back in and get the bike up to full speed is going to be agonizing.