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The Celtics Melt to The Heat

Celtics Lose to Miami Heat

It had barely been 48 hours since the Boston Celtics left South Florida following their Game 6 stunning victory over the Miami Heat. Stories and media features were being mass-produced, rightfully so, about Derrick White’s game-winning putback layup. Video, from all angles, was broadcast incessantly on all platforms. Staged like written for a TV scene, White’s play saved the Celtics season and opened the door for something unprecedented.  


The last two days were the polar opposite. Elation turned to dismay. Sheer pandemonium and hope reduced to sorrow and frustration. How could a team with a track record with the necessary checkmarks play so confoundingly? 


Looking back on the struggles of the Celtics during the 2022-2023 season is a necessity. But it’s also a challenge to look at a team that won 57 games, was top-five in offensive and defensive metrics, and was one win away from the NBA finals and settle at things were a failure. Nuance and context will fill in some of those holes, but the bottom line is when you’re in the business of championships, coming up short is a reputation that is hard to kick.  


A Loss of Identity


The Celtics were added to the history books as the 151st team to fail to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. As the higher seed coming into the series, the Celtics were favored to win. Even with the Heat steamrolling their way to the Conference Finals, only having lost three games on their path, the line was, “Boston can’t lose. They have more talent.” 


While that might be true on paper, the on-court play of both teams told us a lot more than any predictions or prognosticators could. The dirty little secret about the Celtics this year was that they weren’t as connected, especially on defense, compared to last. “Connected” is a buzzword in sports nowadays that is applied too often as an umbrella term. However, when the players admit the slippage, it probably holds water. 


After the 103-84 loss on Monday night, Celtics guard Marcus Smart mentioned how the effort on the defensive end on the floor wavered at times and that, in effect, compounded any shooting struggles they might have in a given game. Along the same lines was an illuminating quote from Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon mentioned how the Celtics identity last year was defense, and they got away from that during the season. 


It was the issue,” Brogdon admitted in his post-game press conference.



The Celtics had only 29 games last season when they allowed opponents to shoot over 45% from the field. This season that ballooned to 53 games. It even extended into the playoffs, where the Celtics were 2-9 in games when the opponent shot over 45%, according to data from Basketball-Reference.


The Celtics “Heat” Problem


Let’s start with the idea that the Celtics can’t handle the Heat. These two teams have now played in three conference finals in four years. Miami has won two. 


The talent disparity thing was mentioned earlier, but Erik Spoelstra and his squad’s game plan for their opponents are better than anyone’s. Both times the Heat have won against the Celtics and have had the better offensive firepower. In the meantime, the Heat have dedicated their soles to understanding the tendencies of players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Heat make it a habit of pressuring those two wings and swiping at the ball when they attempt to dribble. This has been key because the Heat can get out in transition and get easy, open opportunities to score. 


Their zone use also influenced the Heat’s ability to force turnovers. Miami deploys its zone the most in the NBA, but they also tailor it around teams like the Celtics. Not having the greatest ball handlers made it easy for the Heat to pressure the Celtics full court. After, they would settle into the zone scheme once they crossed half-court. The Heat relied heavily on the zone in the last five quarters of the series, walking down a ten-point lead at the end of Game 6 and limiting the Celtics to only 84 points in Game 7.


An Injured Jayson Tatum


There were less than 30 seconds of actual gameplay between White’s shot and when Tatum rolled his ankle. Even though Tatum played 40-plus minutes on the ankle, events like that show how quickly things change in a series. However, what makes it tough to swallow is how durable Tatum has been with the Celtics. Who knows what sort of performance Tatum would have delivered, but he was clearly affected. Whether it was his grimaces after landing or his suffering look on the bench, it was one of the first times fans had witnessed Tatum be, as he described, “A shell of myself.



The Celtics had other problems that led to them losing this game and this series, though Tatum’s injury not only sucked the life out of the crowd just as the game started, it also made the Celtics and head coach Joe Mazzulla get tighter than what a normal Game 7 would naturally produce. No penetration or aggressiveness from Tatum put even more reliance on threes (which they started 0-12 and eventually finished 9-42). With Tatum’s nagging ankle, the Celtics rotation was effectively diminished to six players. None of which could harness the star power needed for a game like that. 


Big Decisions Coming


More in-depth analysis will be provided on the Celtics offseason and their overall grades in the coming weeks on the website. But for now, here are some big-picture questions.


The most talked about the storyline is Jaylen Brown’s contract extension eligibility. Brown secured himself a hefty pay raise in his new contract because he was named to the All-NBA Second Team this season. Brown is owed even more money if he decides to re-sign with the Celtics. When the honors were announced over two weeks ago, there was little apprehension toward keeping Brown in green for a bit longer. Considering Browns’ performance in the last seven games and, more importantly, flaws in the previous two playoff runs, many wonder what the other options are. 


The biggest thing the President of Basketball Operations, Brad Stevens, could do is trade Brown. Numerous fictitious scenarios and destinations have been thrown out already, and if that’s the case, Brown can use them when he intends to sign as leverage. The caution would be trading a 26-year-old All-Star who has played in over 100 career playoff games. The reactionary nature of wanting Brown traded is understandable. Every team has a clock, and for the Celtics core, the time elapsed is going on year seven. 


The other decisions are what happens with Grant Williams. Will the Celtics offer him a contract or explore a sign and trade possibilities? What is Danillo Gallinari’s role on the team next season? Do they move on from a guard? And managerial stuff like Mazzulla’s position as head coach or strengthening his assistants must also be explored.


Final Thoughts


Patience should be exercised. The Celtics have more than enough time and roster flexibility to take a few more bites at the apple. The last thing that should be weighed in these decisions is to measure what you are giving up. It’s no guarantee that what you get back will be better. At the very least, Brown, Tatum, and Smart all seem to like each other. That would be s rock-solid foundation to break up. 


Even with all the frustration with the Celtics and their play style, the qualities of a championship team are there. Improvements and adjustments are needed, but take the Heat as an example to follow. They lost in gut-wrenching fashion at home in Game 7 last year. They didn’t blow things up; they simply retooled and kept investing in their culture, betting they would make it back. The Celtics need more of that attitude as they take the floor next season.


Matt Strout is a contributor to Back Sports Page. Matt studied Journalism and Sociology at Temple University for four years and graduated in May of 2022. While there, Matt wrote for multiple student and professional publications covering sports and the City of Philadelphia. Matt is originally from Maine and now resides in California. He has written content primarily for the NBA and PGA Tour. You can catch Matt frequently as a guest on the “Cut The Nets” podcast featured on the Back Sports Page network. When Matt is not writing, he enjoys cooking and playing golf. Follow Matt’s social media on Twitter @TheRealStrout or Instagram @matt_strout96 

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