The Celtics’ Road Back Isn’t Guaranteed

Jayson Tatum watched the final moments of the NBA Finals from a seat at the end of the Celtics’ bench. And when the clock expired, he stayed there, frozen, as the Warriors began to celebrate everything that could have been his.

There is a special kind of pain in losing a championship—and surely even more in watching another team claim one on your own home floor. Yet after most of his teammates and coaches had filed down the tunnel, Tatum waded out into the crowd of blue jerseys and championship hats. He looked lost. Tatum would take a few steps in one direction and make a hard turn for the exit, only to get halfway and reconsider. Then he would go back out into the crowd, trudging through as if in some kind of daze. He eventually found his way to Steve Kerr, to Andre Iguodala, to Draymond Green.

All the while, attendants began piecing together the stage for the presentation of the championship trophy. The Celtics had once held a 2-1 lead and were just two wins away from winning the title themselves, but in Game 6, they seemed quite a bit further. Golden State was resilient in the closeout game. Composed. Boston, on the other hand, slowly unraveled—squandering its possessions in almost every way possible. Altogether, the Celtics committed 22 turnovers on the night and 101 over six games—the most of any team in a Finals series of that length since 1998.

“We did it to ourselves,” Jaylen Brown said.

Green consoled various Celtics in the immediate aftermath by telling them they would be back on this stage to compete for a championship again. But will they? Every breakthrough run to the Finals feels like the start of something. History isn’t always so kind. The Thunder were expected to make it back to the Finals after losing to the Heat in 2012, but then the Warriors came along. The Suns’ hopes of avenging their loss in the 2021 Finals came apart in the second round; now the future of their core is in flux. The Celtics have the talent and drive to be a great team for a long time. They also know better than to assume anything.

“It’s hard getting to this point,” Tatum said. “It’s even harder getting over it—the hump—and win it.” Sitting alongside Marcus Smart on the press conference podium, the 24-year-old Tatum dutifully entertained questions that he seemed pained to answer. He brushed off concerns about his injured shoulder. He talked about his own shortcomings after turning in the worst game of his worst series in these playoffs. He half-heartedly spoke to the idea of using a loss like this as fuel for next season.

The first order of business, however, was simply getting through the night. At the end of the Finals, the celebration and the funeral happen simultaneously, spilling over into the same spaces. The Celtics couldn’t even begin their postgame interviews until the ceremony on the floor—their floor—had concluded. Then, as the Boston players came and went, they were met with the roaring sounds of the festivities down the hall. Moments after Ime Udoka discussed the pain in his team’s locker room, you could hear a voice shouting from somewhere down the corridor: “WORLD CHAMPS! LET’S GOOOOO!” An entire crowd of Warriors staff, friends, and family cheered back. The Celtics filtered in for a series of utterly dejected interviews. Afterward, the room was commandeered for a special championship edition of Green’s podcast.

If there is an enduring lesson in this experience for Boston, it’s that it’s not enough to want something. You have to know how to reach for it—how to extend beyond your limits without losing your bearings. The Celtics played like a desperate team, but one that was occasionally out of control. The turnovers were really just a symptom of a broader lack of certainty. Once Golden State ratcheted up its defense in this series, Boston’s players seemed unsure of how to find their way to steady offense, or even of where they should turn to try. Tatum was blanketed by Andrew Wiggins. Al Horford had some brilliant moments, but also showed his age. Smart, the team’s point guard, veered a bit too easily into the kinds of ill-advised plays that could make a bad run worse. Brown was the closest thing the Celtics had to a real stabilizing force in this game and this series, and even he looked completely overwhelmed at times.

“What I did say to the group was, ‘There are levels,’” Udoka explained after Game 6. “You can see the difference in Golden State, a team that’s been there, been together for a long time.”

Or, as one Warriors official boasted during a short break from the festivities: “We’re better. We’re deeper. And we have Steph Curry.” Whenever the Celtics pulled within any reasonably competitive range during the second half Thursday, the Warriors would give the ball to Curry against a mismatch and let him cook. When Boston tried to do the same with Tatum, he drove into traffic, and had his attempt swatted away by Wiggins. He tried to attack out of the corner, but fumbled his footwork—the centerpiece of his game—and committed a traveling violation. There are levels. For as brilliant as Tatum had been throughout the postseason, he met a new level of resistance in these Finals and Boston never really recovered.

“When teams are singularly focused to take certain guys out, we have to have a fallback,” Udoka said. “Whether it’s off-ball actions, post-up actions, some of the things we did tonight and throughout the season and playoffs at times.” Yet not enough when it mattered most. There will be calls for the Celtics to invest in a proper point guard in the offseason, and maybe they should. There will be pressure for Tatum and Brown to continue to evolve as playmakers, and their growth this season suggests even greater potential in that area. “I always look at adversity as opportunities to shape an individual,” Brown said. “For whatever reason, it wasn’t our time. That means we still got a lot to learn.”

Those lessons can only come painfully. Boston was close enough to get this far—to smell the cigar smoke wafting in from the next room. Now comes the hardest part. Before the final buzzer had even sounded on the season and the Finals, Curry broke down in tears out on the court. He fell to the floor. One of the greatest to ever play the game couldn’t contain himself, even after winning three previous titles, because he knew in that moment what the Celtics will have to learn: It takes everything to find your way back.

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