In 1966, Clint Eastwood starred in the western, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But I am not referring to that fantastic film. I am talking about the 2022-23 Boston Celtics. We’ve seen all three versions of this team in this year’s playoffs, especially in the first six games of this Eastern Conference Finals.
Let’s start at the beginning, this latest version of the Celtics could be great. They won 57 games in the regular season. They have one each of first and second-team All-NBA players. They have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. They have this year’s Sixth Man of the Year. They have the deepest bench in the league. They have now been in four of the last six Eastern Conference Finals, although they were 1-2 in their first three trips.
They were on the verge of being 1-3 after going down 0-3 in the first three games against the Miami Heat. For the record, the Heat have been a far more important team in the NBA over the past 30 years than the Celtics. They won a championship with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, and then they had a run of dominance with LeBron James, and now they have been in the mix with “Playoff Jimmy” Butler.
It can be argued that this version of the Celtics has been underachievers. Their core is young, and this league proves to have a pecking order which relies heavily on it just being a team’s “time.” It just seems like it’s been the Celtics’ “time” for a while now.
Although the game has changed immensely since the days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and even Michael Jordan…at its core, it’s still the same. Play solid team basketball, make the extra pass, play solid defense, and score in transition when it’s there. And for God’s sake, take good shots. This Celtics team appears to only be able to win one way. When they hit a ton of 3s, they win, when they don’t, they lose.
But they are the superior team than the No. 8 seed Heat, regardless of how much of a hole they dug themselves. One hundred and fifty times a team has put themselves in an 0-3 hole, and 150 they’ve lost the series. Only three times has a team done what this Celtics team has done, which is take the series to Game 7. Those three times, it did not go that team’s way, so history is still against the Celtics.
I’m here to say that win or lose tonight, and then win or lose against the Nuggets (if they do prevail), changes need to be made to this team. Red Auerbach would have seen it and done something about it. It was Red who traded away Gerald Henderson, who was a popular and talented guard, for a draft pick which ultimately became the Lenny Bias fateful pick. And Red also traded away “Climb on back boys” Cedric Maxwell, who said that before the last game of the 1984 Championship. Maxwell was traded for Bill Walton, which led to the 1986 Championship. In the 37 years since that championship, the Celtics have only won one championship.
Red wasn’t afraid to make big and bold trades, and neither should Brad Stevens be. This team has shown tremendous resiliency in a way, they have been to three conference finals with three different head coaches … but at some point, the problem is not the coach but the players. Stevens was kicked upstairs when it was proven that he couldn’t handle this bunch. He hired Ime Udoka, who did take the team to the next step, making it to the Finals last year … but in the end, he fell short too. Udoka found himself out thanks to off-court issues, replaced by first-year head coach Joe Mazzula. For all the talk now about how the team had a problem with the way Udake was treated in losing his job, they started off on fire with a 25-7 record … so they weren’t affected too badly.
It’s all an excuse when the Bad Celtics are on the court, and it devolves into the Ugly Celtics after the fact, with excuse-making and finger-pointing. The team was winning until part-time role player Grant Williams decided to talk trash to Jimmy Butler. They put themselves in an 0-2 hole at home, and instead of coming out strong in Game 3, they were never in it and frankly embarrassed themselves.
They have now clawed themselves out for a chance at history. It took absolute heroics and Leprechaun Magic by Derrick White with no time left on the clock, to prevail in Game 6 and even make Game 7 a possibility. But I’m going to channel Team USA hockey coach Herb Brooks after defeating the Soviet Team at the 1980 Olympics but before the Gold Medal game against Finland. If the Celtics end up losing Game 7 now, after what they’ve done to claw back, they’re going to remember it for the rest of their lives.
But again, Boston were big favorites to win this series. Many are comparing this to the 2004 Red Sox team that defeated the Yankees after going down 0-3. The two are not comparable. That Sox team was an underdog to the Yankees, this Celtics team was expected to run through the Heat, regardless of what they did to the Bucks in the first round.
Brad Stevens will have a ton of decisions in the offseason, regardless of whether the team wins Game 7 or not, and regardless of whether they defeat the Nuggets. He has a decision of whether to spend over half a billion dollars on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And what will he do about the matter of Marcus Smart, one of the most polarizing figures in Boston sports today? If anything, the play of Derrick White this playoffs has made Smart much more expendable.
If for nothing other than history, it will be great if the Celtics can pull it off … but it would be so Celtics to do all of this only to go back home and lose in front of their fans in the TD Garden. Please, Brad, don’t let the results over the next few days or weeks determine what you need to do for the future of the team over the next few years.