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It Wasn’t the Celtics’ Time. Next Year It Could Be.

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BOSTON. The trophy platform was nearing completion, and even as a group of smiling, sweat-soaked warriors bounced around it, Jason Tatum couldn’t bring himself to leave the platform. The most successful season of Tatum’s five-year NBA career ended on the most disappointing night, 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting in a 103–90 loss in Game 6. As the Golden State celebrated, Tatum glanced at the Jumbotron as if he wanted to show a few more minutes on his watch.

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“It’s hard to get to this point and not do what we wanted,” Tatum said. “It hurts.”

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There have been more successful Celtics seasons than this one; 17, which actually ended in championships. But few have been more memorable. The team, which looked lifeless in November and December, rose from the ashes in February and March. Inner turmoil gave way to close-knit chemistry. The rookie coach has turned into an elite one. The budding superstar has taken the next step.

A small consolation, of course. But as recently as mid-January, it looked like this Celtics team wasn’t going anywhere. “At the start of the season,” Jaylen Brown said, “nobody thought we’d be here.” The defense was mediocre. The crime was worse. The team regularly lost lead in the fourth quarter, after which Ime Udoka publicly criticized them for this. The idea that this team could win two victories was ludicrous.

“The bites are not enough,” Brown said. “But there is much to learn, and the future is bright.”

It. Changes in the off-season will be minimal. Improvements, if any, will be internal:

  • In Tatum. Tatum’s improvement this season can be measured statistically – he’s averaged career-high points, rebounds and assists – and how he’s developed into a leading role. He beat Kevin Durant in the first round, saved the Celtics with 46 points in Game 6 against Milwaukee, and had 26 points and 10 rebounds in Game 7 against Miami. Tatum looked physically exhausted in the Finals, but there is reason to believe he is on the cusp of joining the NBA’s elite.

“It’s hard to get to that point,” Tatum said. “It’s even harder to get over it, the hump, and win… it’s hard. You have to rise to the next level to do what we want.”

  • In Brown. Injuries and COVID-related issues affected the first two months of Brown’s season. He was eliminated in the Final Four. Like Tatum, Brown accepted Udoka’s challenge to become a better playmaker – averaging over four assists per game since the All-Star break and six per game in April – complementing Marcus Smart as a perimeter guard. Brown is the perfect co-star with Tatum, who is comfortable playing a supporting role.

“Man, we still have a lot to learn as a group and as individuals,” Brown said. “Despite the fact that we have achieved growth, changed our season, we still have a lot to learn about the game of basketball. I learned so much during this playoff. Not playing last year after having wrist surgery in this year’s playoffs, just grateful for the opportunity.”

  • In Smart. The Celtics played sloppily in the Finals – 22 turnovers in Game 6 – a series high – which would invariably lead to calls from Boston to look in the market for a more experienced playmaker. But the Celtics are a Finals team thanks to Smart. He is the backbone of defense, a key reason why Boston leads the NBA in defensive efficiency, field goal percentage, pick-and-roll defense, and just about every other defensive metric. Smart averaged 3.2 assists in the Finals – his highest of the entire series – and his perimeter shooting needs to be improved. But the 28-year-old Smart will only grow in that role.

“We see what we can do,” Smart said. “We got a taste. We want all of this. I know for sure that we will return with a different team. We’re going to get to work.”

And that might be all it takes. Clutch minutes improved: The Celtics ranked 29th in winning percentage (37.1%) and went 3–9 in games deciding three points or less in the regular season. In the Finals, Golden State defeated Boston in eight of the last 10 quarters. Improvements in turnover cleaning; Tatum was the leading postseason scorer but also had more turnovers (100) since the league started tracking them in 1977.

“We will all work hard this summer,” Udoka said. “Improve in a certain way. I think the biggest part for us is the IQ section. That’s where we saw a huge difference in alignment between us and Golden State, just little things that only experience can teach you. For us, this is a message.”

The list will likely come back mostly intact. This season, Robert Williams has established himself as an elite and consistent defender. Three-point shot by Grant Williams was a success. Al Horford, 36, has experienced a resurgence and Celtics officials are confident that Horford, who has a partially guaranteed contract for next season, will return. The bench needs help — the Celtics scored five points on the second line in Game 6 — but Brad Stevens will have a $6.4 million midfield elimination and three good trade eliminations to play with. On the inside, they highly value Sam Houser’s well-aimed wing.

“This is just the beginning,” Udoka said. “The foundation has been laid. We can get down to business next year. Let’s get well and we’ll all be on the same wavelength.”

The Celtics felt the loss. Perhaps literally. Geographically, the Warriors locker room in TD Garden is directly across from Boston. It’s likely that the Celtics heard the Golden State celebration in the hallway and at least passed a pair of bespectacled Warriors employees walking out the door. It was not their time. With some changes, next year it could be.

More NBA coverage:

  • Stephen Curry’s legacy cemented
  • NBA Finals MVP: Jordan, LeBron, Magic & All-Award Winner
  • Why didn’t Stephen Curry win the 2015 Finals MVP?
  • Stephen Curry wins NBA Finals MVP for the first time in his career


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