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Celtics’ quest for championship title no. 18 still ‘unfinished business’

Jimmy Myers

After what can only be labeled an out-of-control, roller-coaster NBA season, the 2022-23 Boston Celtics crash-landed by virtue of an embarrassing 103–84 defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat at the T.D. Bank Garden on May 29.

There is so much to decipher about what transpired with the Celtics this season that a couple of heavy-volume books would be needed to get an accurate picture … but here it goes.

Coming off a trip to last year’s NBA finals (a six-game loss to the Golden State Warriors), most of your so-called experts felt the Celtics were one step away from a return to championship glory. That all took a downward spiral with the news that the team suspended head coach Ime Udoka for the entire season due to an inner-office affair with a female employee. The scandal took on a most serious note when it was revealed that the female employee was a married woman with three children.

Enter 34-year-old assistant coach Joe Mazzulla, who was handed the job on an interim basis. When the team responded with early season success, Mazzulla was given a three-year contract, officially ending the tenure of suspended coach Udoka. There were telltale signs of the team’s inconsistent play, along with some questionable coaching decisions by Mazzulla, but many Celtics followers felt that the team was moving in the right direction. The Cs finished with the second-best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference, behind the Milwaukee Bucks.

Things got shaky when the postseason began, with the Celtics struggling with the seventh-seeded Atlanta Hawks before surviving a tough six-game series. The situation became more tenuous when the Philadelphia 76ers took game one of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semi-final series at the Garden with 45 points from James Harden, even though the visitors were playing minus the services of the league’s Most Valuable Player, Joel Embiid.

The Celtics had to survive a grueling seven-game series (rallying from a 3-2 deficit, which included a gut-wrenching game-six win in Philly, followed by an NBA game-seven-record 51-point performance by Jayson Tatum in the final game). The Miami Heat had to survive the “play-in” situation before stunning the top-seeded Bucks, making the path to the Celtics championship banner number 18 seem a bit smoother. But something happened on the way to Tipperary.

The Celtics lost game one and two on their home court and were blown out in game three in Miami. Celtics fans went into a state of shock as the roof was caving in on their beloved team.

And then a near-miracle occurred. The Cs won game four in Miami, game five in Boston and a squeaked out a one-point triumph in game six in Miami on a last-second rebound tip-in by Derrick White. That victory set the scene for a chance at history. No team in the 76-year history of the NBA had ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series. Three had tried and failed, leaving the record for teams that take a 3-0 lead being 150-0. The difference was that the Celtics would be the first team to attempt the feat with game seven on their home court.

Then the proverbial (repaired) roof collapsed on their heads.

The Heat reached deep within themselves and came to play. Conference finals MVP Jimmy Butler found his game, scoring 28 points. But the bigger story was 26 points by Caleb Martin (who should have been named MVP over Butler for his stellar play throughout the entire series), along with good team defense and the play of reserve Heat players (many undrafted) that did the job.

While crediting the Heat with inspired play, criticism must be placed at the feet of the Celtics. Their failure to play team defense along with their stagnant offense against what amounts to a high-school 3-2 zone defense, especially their refusal to shoot fewer three-point shots when they couldn’t knock them down, sealed their doom.

The team’s motto was “unfinished business.” The quest for championship banner number 18 remains “unfinished business.”