Celtics left to ponder what could have been after NBA Finals defeat

Forsberg: Celtics have left to contemplate what may have originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON – No matter what, the end of an NBA season always feels abrupt. It’s like you’re sprinting on a treadmill and someone kicks the plug out. The next thing you know you’re hanging upside down at the electronic display, wondering what just happened.

The Boston Celtics’ 2021-22 season, which included an unlikely and unprecedented mid-season turnaround as well as an exciting run to the NBA Finals, ended Thursday night in a Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors at TD Garden.

This one will sting. The Celtics navigated a playoff gauntlet, but there was an unexpected opportunity for more. The Warriors were brimming with playoff experience but were far from unbeatable.

The Celtics beat themselves too often, although the Warriors certainly played their part in the last two games. Boston couldn’t avoid each other. The Celtics turned ball in spurts, their offense fell into the poor isolation habits that characterized the ugly first half of the season, and this team failed to muster the resilience in the Finals that had previously been their postseason calling card.

Boston needs to think about what could have been. A fast start in a noisy backyard prompted daydreams of a Game 7 showdown in San Francisco. Steph Curry and his sniper buddies burst that bubble with a 21-0 run that stretched into the second quarter. And no number of Ime Udoka timeouts could steady Boston, who frantically tried to close in the second half.

The Celtics were five minutes from a 3-1 lead only six days ago. Then everything went to hell. Boston’s offense stuttered at the Game 4 finish line and then improbably faltered again early in Game 5. The Celtics projected confidence in the ramp up to Game 6 but got away just long enough for the Warriors to build a big cushion Thursday night.

Even in a city where the only desirable result is a league banner, it would be too harsh to claim that the season was scuppered by the result of the finals.

However, it is fair to lament a missed opportunity, no matter how far-fetched it may have seemed four months ago to reach this stage.

The Celtics were 18-21 after an incredibly bad national televised loss to the Knicks in early January. After that game, Boston sat 11th in the East and showed few signs of the team they would soon become.

Boston won 33-10 in the last 43 games of the season and had the NBA’s best offense and defense in three dominant months of play. First-year coach Ime Udoka scoffed at the idea of ​​his team dodging the Brooklyn Nets in Round 1 of the playoffs. He begged his team to chase the No. 2 and was rewarded with a first-round win over Kevin Durant and his old friend Kyrie Irving.

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A path to the NBA Finals soon opened up, especially with Bucks All-Star (and Celtics shredder) Khris Middleton sidelined for the conference semifinals. Despite this, the Bucks won two of the first three games in Boston, including a demoralizing triumph in Game 5 at TD Garden. Undeterred, the Celtics watched as Jayson Tatum dueled Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 6 in Milwaukee and then rode unlikely hero Grant Williams to a Game 7 triumph.

Boston had to grind again in the East final. This time it was Jimmy Butler producing an otherworldly Game 6 effort in Boston to expand on an already ultra-physical series. The Celtics flew to Miami calmly, winning en route to secure their ticket to the Finals.

The title round will leave a sour taste in an otherwise sugar-sweet season. Udoka pushed his young team hard earlier in the year but has been rewarded with monster growth in recent months. Brad Stevens, President of Basketball Operations, rolled the dice a few times in his first year at the helm (notably with the acquisition of Al Horford and Derrick White), but assembled a roster that was all complementary and in which moved in the same direction.

Jayson Tatum made several leaps on his way to an All-NBA First Team Nickname (and sixth-place MVP voting). Tatum’s finals struggles will cause some to once again question his status in the NBA hierarchy, but the strides he’s made, particularly as a playmaker, have been undeniable. The Celtics are well placed well into the future with this 24-year-old at the helm. Given the end of the season, he won’t be lacking in motivation.

Jaylen Brown is not a finished product yet. Robert Williams could be key to Boston’s championship hopes as he influences the team defensively. Marcus Smart has proven his ability as a primary point guard to a quality offensive quarterback while also being named Defensive Player of the Year.

Eventually, this run becomes romanticized. Along the way, it felt a bit like the Isaiah Thomas-led wave of 2017. But this team went above and beyond their coverage; This one actually had the talent to reach the finish line of a championship season. It just wasn’t ready for the moment.

The Celtics cannot rely solely on internal development to ensure further promotion to the championship stage. Stevens will have opportunities to improve the team this offseason and if the owner is willing to splurge on a competitor, the Celtics can further beef up a roster that has been a little thin at depth.

The offseason will be short because of Boston’s Deep Trek, but there will be ample time to think about how the Celtics can reload.

For now, it seems important to savor the improbability of what has just unfolded. All that was missing from this storybook season was the ending. Perhaps the final scene will motivate a young core not to let opportunities like this pass by again.

The fact that the Celtics would play basketball in mid-June seemed absolutely ridiculous just a few months ago. Many giggled as FiveThirtyEight projected a possible matchup between the Celtics and the Warriors Finals in March, and then it came to fruition.

It will take time to overcome the sting that lingers. Celtics fans are left feeling queasy as the team frustrated their own quest for their 18th title.

Eventually, this run becomes romanticized. Along the way, it felt a bit like the Isaiah Thomas-led wave of 2017. But this team went above and beyond their coverage; This one actually had the talent to reach the finish line of a championship season. It just wasn’t ready for the moment.

There may be other opportunities, although they are never guaranteed. If the Celtics go on to win a title, maybe this season will be even better remembered. It may just be one of the first chapters in a series of novels about the core of this team.

But for now it ends on a cliffhanger. Like your favorite Netflix series, there’s a long way to go before the next season arrives. It’s going to be a brutal wait to reconnect that treadmill and get the bike up to full speed again.

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