“The biggest message was learn from this, grow from it, take this experience and see there is another level to get to. A team like Golden State who has been there, done that. It was evident in a lot of ways.”
Coach Ime Udoka of the Boston Celtics summed it up perfectly during his postgame press conference. There is another level to get to.
The Celtics turned out to be the surprise team of the season. After barely being a .500 squad early in the year, they morphed into a defensive juggernaut come the playoffs. They marched into the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the league as the second seed in the East. They swept the Brooklyn Nets, overcame Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, and outlasted a gritty effort from Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. And yet, after all that, they still needed to become more. They needed to be at the level of the Golden State Warriors.
Championship teams find a way to win and that’s exactly what Golden State did. After being down 2-1 in the series, the Warriors went into another gear. More specifically, Steph Curry went into another gear. He erupted for 43 points on the road in a virtual must-win Game 4 against the vaunted Celtics defense.
In Game 5, when Curry struggled with his shot, all of Golden State’s role players filled the scoring void. By Game 6, the momentum totally shifted and the Warriors were in hunting mode and the Celtics were reeling. Coach Steve Kerr was plugging in holes in his game plan in the first half of the series. In the end, it was the Celtics desperately seeking answers.
“I'm sure as our turnovers piled up throughout the series, if you look across the playoffs, it was an area of emphasis,” Udoka said. “You could pretty much look at the box score and see if we won or lost based on a few things.”
In Game 6, the Celtics committed 22 turnovers. When Jayson Tatum got the ball in the corner late in the contest, he sized up his defender and made his move, but was immediately called for travelling. That moment was a microcosm of the game and the series. In six games, Boston had a whopping 101 errors. The Warriors cranked up their defense to another plateau and the Celtics wilted under pressure.
Speaking of Tatum, he had a series to forget. He still averaged 21.5 points on 36.7 percent field goal shooting (including 45.5 percent from deep), 65.6 percent from the line, 6.8 rebounds, and 7.0 assists. But he was also responsible for 3.8 turnovers. He didn’t put his imprint on any Finals game. Game 6 was supposed to be the perfect moment for him with his team facing elimination at home. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get to his usual spots and he didn’t deliver.
“Learn and understand who he is in this league,” Udoka said about Tatum. “You're an All-Star, All-NBA First Team guy for a reason. This is only the start of how you're going to be guarded and the attention you're going to draw.”
“For him, it's just continuing to grow and understand you're going to see this the rest of your career,” he went on. “This is just a start.”
The coach is right. If anything, this series was a reminder that Tatum is only 24. Jaylen Brown, his co-star, is only 25. Youth is on the side of Boston.
Heading into the offseason, the Celtics have a few house duties with regards to their roster. One good news is that they don’t have to make urgent free agent decisions with their core. The not-so-good news is management should decide if they’re willing to spend a ton on luxury tax.
Money and numbers aside, are they willing to shake things up and make changes to their roster?
The question on whether or not they should get a traditional point guard will surface again. Marcus Smart was able to provide steady ballhandling and allowed them to explore a taller and beefier defensive lineup. But what if they can get a point guard who can be that elite playmaker and still have their strong defensive identity intact?
Another avenue to improve on is Boston’s bench. Is the team sticking to its young guys and hoping that they develop further? Would they want more veteran scoring presence coming off the bench? Aside from improving the long-term health of Robert Williams III, they can also explore improving their frontcourt depth.
There are a few small questions that the Celtics will consider for sure. More than anything, however, this summer will be a chance to look inward and pick up the pieces of the season. It wasn’t a failure by any measure. Certainly not after how they started the year. And yet, there are no moral victories in the league. They can be proud of their turnaround and their deep playoff run but being proud isn’t the same as being champions.
“Like I said, the message is everybody come back better,” Udoka said. “Let's not be satisfied. It's not guaranteed you're going to be here. The East is getting tougher every year. They'll come back better. We will as a staff as well.”
The Celtics need to get to another level – the championship level. After falling short of their goal against a battle-tested Warriors squad, the eventual phase for them is to take that next step.