BOSTON — With 63 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka waved his 11-back team the white flag, replacing all five of his starters.
After slowly trudging off the field, Jayson Tatum exchanged greetings with the Boston players and coaches, removed his No. 0 jersey, dropped into a seat on the bench and watched the Golden State Warriors win their fourth championship celebrated in eight years.
“It hurts,” Tatum said after the Celtics lost 103-90 at the end of the season. “Being with that group, the things that we overcame during the season, getting to this point… just knowing how badly we wanted to come up short.
“It’s a terrible feeling.”
Tatum and colleague Jaylen Brown became the fourth duo to be the top two scorers on a Finals team at age 25 or younger, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
The Houston Rockets, led by Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, made it in 1986. Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway led the Orlando Magic to the 1995 Finals. Nearly two decades later, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook won the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder on the league’s biggest stage.
After falling to the Warriors, Tatum, Brown and the Celtics now have something else in common with those earlier teams: they both lost in the league’s championship round.
This statistic in itself is not shocking. To win the sport’s ultimate prize, teams often have to lose it first. What’s even more surprising is the other unfortunate fact shared by the top three elite rosters on this list:
Neither of these duos ever made it back to the finals.
As the Celtics head into the offseason after an impressive midseason turnaround that gave them two wins from their first championship since 2008, they’re hoping to avoid a similar fate.
“The future is bright,” Brown said after the game. “I always see adversity as an opportunity to shape a person. For some reason it wasn’t our time. …
“For me, it’s always about growth. Always getting better, always finding new ways to lead. It’s all about this. The future is bright.”
This is how Boston should approach summer
THE CELTS ENTER the off-season on a different timeline than any of these previous three teams in their situation. The 1986 Rockets’ chances of remaining a contender plummeted when Sampson began suffering knee and back injuries the next season — he went from 243 games in his first three NBA seasons to 213 overall in the remainder of his nine-year career.
The Magic of 1995 and the Thunder of 2012, meanwhile, fell victim to the annual struggle of many smaller markets against the pull of free choice. After losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the East Finals in 1996, O’Neal left Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Thunder traded James Harden before the start of the 2012-13 season and lost Durant to the Warriors in the summer of 2016.
Boston, on the other hand, is focused on long-term success.
The Celtics’ top eight players are all signed for at least next season. Al Horford, 36, is their only key player whose rights they don’t control after next season and the only one older than 27. Tatum, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III are all signed until 2025-26. Derrick White, Daniel Theis and Payton Pritchard have contracts that will take them to 2024-25 and Jaylen Brown’s extension runs to 2023-24.
The Celtics also have a new coach in Udoka and a new president of basketball operations in Brad Stevens, both of whom seem firmly entrenched in their roles.
That has led Boston, even if it falls within the Golden State, to viewing the end of 2021-22 as a stepping stone rather than a roadblock.
“There’s also a big approach, a core group that we want to build to move forward and understand how to protect any situation,” Udoka said ahead of the Celtics’ Game 2 loss.
“[I’ve] been dealing with it in the last few years in the finals or the playoffs in general, finding some kind of balance of when to keep at it when something isn’t working, but also looking at the big picture and how well we’ve done all season, adjustment to different teams [and] different schemes.”
Udoka held onto that belief early in the season when Boston repeatedly tussled, and maintained it as the Celtics turned things around from late January when the plans Udoka wanted the players running — plus some under-the-radar trades – helped transform Boston into a nearly unstoppable juggernaut.
“Nobody saw us here, let alone in the playoffs,” Smart said after Boston’s Game 6 loss. “We went through hell to get here and you take that. You know what I’m saying?
Boston finished the regular season 28-7, having the best offense and defense in the league during that span. Factor in a two-win run to the Finals in Game 7, and Boston has the talent and experience to be a championship contender for years to come.
“When I think about who that will be [East] Teams running it again next year,” said an East scout. “I feel as good or better with them than anyone else.”
THE FINAL WAS rough for Boston’s franchise cornerstone. Golden State threw a variety of defenses at Tatum over the course of the series, and he struggled to adapt, shooting 36.7% from field and 31.6% from 2-point range.
Tatum finished the postseason with 100 turnovers – more than any other player in a single playoff in NBA history. “Learn and understand who he is in this league,” Udoka said of Tatum’s next challenge.
“You’re an All-Star, All-NBA First Team guy for a reason. This is just the beginning of how you will be guarded and the attention you will attract.”
Meanwhile, the Celtics saw their depth tested. They were fortunate to make it through the playoffs unscathed, despite watching Smart and Robert Williams go back and forth with ailments.
But against Golden State, the team’s reserve unit of White, Grant Williams and Pritchard was largely outclassed, including a combined 2-for-10 elimination from the field for five points in Game 6. While Boston’s Top 8 is considered an elite league, the rear Missing end of his roster.
“They have a lot of coats,” an East executive said of Boston’s bank.
“[And] You still need a real point guard. I love Marcus but he needs another person to help him and that can’t be [Tatum and Brown] because they drip too much. you need someone else If Utah [looks to move] Mike Conley, can you put it in there? someone like that.”
Tatum and Brown, on the other hand, have made significant strides — but league insiders say the growth needs to continue. After Udoka began improving the duo’s playmaking this season, both made moves as moderators despite struggling with playoff turnovers.
“I think Jaylen is starting to show better touch and more selflessness with the ball,” said a Western Conference manager. “Jayson shows better decision making. He’s learning what it takes to be ‘the guy’.”
Now add the Celtics Finals loss to the list of postseason learning experiences after eliminating Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks and Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat in back-to-back series – looking ahead to the finals games in Milwaukee and Miami and live, to tell the story.
While they fell short of a record 18th NBA title and tied with their Los Angeles rivals, there is much optimism in Boston and across the league that these Celtics, led by their young and rising star duo, have the pieces to take one make triumphant return to the NBA’s biggest stage.
“That’s the message to the boys tonight: ‘This is just the beginning,'” said Udoka. “A foundation has been laid.”