Well, it certainly was fun while it lasted for the Celtics in the NBA Bubble! Boston was eliminated from the playoffs following its frustrating loss in Game 6 of the Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. In what was an already unusual season for the NBA due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the C's weren't expected by many to even be in this position. Most experts believed that the Milwaukee Bucks, led by the DPOY & MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, would blaze an easy path to the NBA Finals. The bubble had different plans, however, as it was Miami that made quick work of the field, sweeping the Indiana Pacers in the 1st round and then shockingly besting the top seeded Bucks in 5 games. Immediately, this prompted a lot of Celtics fans, including myself, to believe that this team had a legit case to make the NBA Finals. Defeating the defending champion Toronto Raptors in a crucial Game 7 in the second round gave Celtics fans added hope that this young core, led by the duo known as 'the Jays' and head coach Brad Stevens, could pull off an unlikely run to the NBA Finals.
As it turned out, however, many fans were sleeping on just how good this Miami squad is. The Heat, led by Jimmy Butler and a number of great supporting role players like Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo, are in the Finals for a reason. One of those reasons? Miami's head coach, Erik Spoelstra, who seems to somehow be one of the most underappreciated coaches in the entire league. Spolestra's adjustments were stellar in the Conference Finals and Brad Stevens had a tough time countering. Boston blew double-digit leads in both Games 1 & 2, quickly finding themselves in a deep hole. Boston bounced back nicely in Game 3, but Tyler Herro absolutely took over in Game 4, dropping a career-high 37 points to drop the Celtics in a 3-1 hole. The C's were able to once again dig deep in Game 5, controlling the second half and outscoring the Heat 70-50 en route to a 121-108 win. However, the second half of Game 6 was the complete opposite for the Celtics, as they were outscored 73-53 by Miami, ultimately losing the game and the series itself.
The purpose of this blog isn't me explaining what went wrong for the Celtics against Miami, though. Everyone already knows the C's couldn't figure out the 2-3 zone defense the Heat installed in their game plan and that Brad Stevens got straight up outcoached by Erik Spoelstra. This is, however, me telling Celtics fans that everything is going to be okay and to not worry so much about what this loss means for the team going forward. Quickly after Game 6, Celtics fans rushed to the Trade Machine and tweeted some of the most ridiculous trades and takes I've ever seen. Some fans even believe that firing Brad Stevens and rebuilding a new team around Jayson Tatum is in the best interest of Danny Ainge. Look, I get it, losing in the Eastern Conference Finals 3 out of the last 4 years is frustrating, but these Celtics are still the second youngest team in the NBA. The fact that Boston was able to make three ECF appearances with this young of a team is an accomplishment in and of itself.
No, Brad Stevens shouldn't be fired; he has a tremendous relationship with his players and with the front office. In fact, Danny Ainge just granted Stevens a long-term contract extension just over a month ago. Did Stevens make some crucial mistakes in the series by not having an answer for Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, who shot the ball with ease at times? Sure. The Celtics were not mentally tough against the Heat, who have been absolutely ruthless in the bubble, and just couldn't match their energy. Marcus Smart took matters into his own hands by calling out his team in the locker room after Game 2, which started a scuffle between him and Jaylen Brown. But that happens in every NBA locker room at one time or another and Stevens actually did a great job in turning that blow up into something constructive heading into Game 3. Bottom line? Brad Stevens isn't the one out there playing on the court. People are too quick to blame the head coach when things don't go in their favorite team's favor.
Celtics fans' desire to trade away everyone besides Jayson Tatum is another perfect example of them being far too heated at the moment. Obviously, Danny Ainge isn't going to hold a fire sale and break up his roster anytime soon; the only player I could possibly see being traded is Gordon Hayward. Shortly after the conclusion of Game 6, reports came out that Hayward is likely to exercise his player option worth $34.2 million -- we know that Hayward isn't nearly worth that type of money anymore, but that isn't his fault. After all, Hayward has been through hell and back, between the broken ankle in his first game as a Celtic, numerous ankle injuries and switching between a starting and bench role. However, I do believe that Ainge will make a trade to move Hayward's contract while retaining some salary. It's been reported that the Pacers are interested in trading either Victor Oladipo or Myles Turner, as Indiana might begin a rebuild. In my opinion, if the Celtics are looking to move Gordon Hayward, trading for Myles Turner would be the first move for "Trader Danny." All year, the Celtics were in need of a true center and after Adebayo made easy work of them, this seems like the ideal trade to put the Celtics over the top. Daniel Theis is a perfect reserve for Boston and would make an immediate impact on its sometimes dreadful bench.
At the end of the day, there were a lot of positives to take away from this Celtics season. First, Jayson Tatum has proven he can be a superstar in this league. He appears destined to take that next step in 2021, which is the best possible outcome for the Celtics. We got a glimpse into Tatum's future during the month of February when he averaged 30 PPG while shooting 48% from 3-point range, the first player to accomplish this feat in a single month since Stephen Curry. Tatum also was the first Celtic since Larry Bird to achieve this feat, which is welcome company. The other player to accomplish this feat? Michael Jordan, perhaps you've heard of him. He also averaged 7.9 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.2 SPG and 1.3 BPG while shooting 49.4% from the field overall.
In the bubble re-start, Tatum averaged 25.8 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 4.6 APG and 1.1 BPG with 8 double-doubles and a +/- of 7. The only other player who finished in the top eight of all these categories (as Tatum did) is LeBron James; perhaps you've also heard of him. In Game 5 against the Heat, Tatum scored 0 points in the 1st half, going 0-7 from the field. In the second half, Tatum went off for 31 points to secure a much needed victory. He became the first player in NBA history at his age to record 25+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 5+ assists in a playoff game. Another fun fact? He also ranks 3rd in points scored before age 21, joining LeBron and the late Kobe Bryant, Jayson's idol. Tatum earned his first All-NBA selection in being named to the 3rd team; you could even make a case he should've made the 2nd team.
Not only did Tatum take a big leap this season, but Jaylen Brown was a candidate for NBA Most Improved Player. Brown averaged 20.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.1 APG and 1.1 SPG on .481/.382 shooting splits, improving in every major individual category. During the ECF, Brown averaged 23.1 PPG and 7.1 RPG with a 65.6 TS%. Brown did make some mental errors and definitely turned the ball over in some crucial moments, but putting up those types of stats all season and during the playoffs is a hard thing to ignore. Brown still has a lot of potential at 23 years old and yet still always finds himself included in crazy hypothetical trades by Celtics fans. Obviously, if Karl Anthony Towns or Bradley Beal were available for trade, Danny Ainge might have to make that hard decision to include Brown in such a transaction. Brown has shown star potential, though, and you almost have to ride it out until you determine his peak.
Marcus Smart was the most improved player for the Celtics in bubble play, as he showed that he's capable of more than just playing gritty defense. In Game 1 of the Celtics' second round series against the Toronto Raptors, Smart shot 54.5% from 3-point range and equaled or exceeded those percentages in Games 2 & 6. If Smart can develop a consistent shot, he could contribute to the Celtics shooting struggles moving forward. I don't think there's any chance the Celtics trade Smart this offseason, as he's the heart, soul and voice of the team. It's also no coincidence that other NBA players have stated that they wish to have him on their own teams. I'll take my chances on keeping Smart rather than listening to the cynical fanboys on Celtics Twitter. Robert Williams also made some impact in the minutes he played in the bubble; When Timelord is healthy, the potential is something to be really excited about. He proved that he can play solid defense and attack the rim with his impressive athleticism. Williams' upside is something to monitor next season, as it could be real promising.
The 'Trade Kemba' conversation picked up heavily during bubble play, as the Celtics' Guard struggled to shoot the ball consistently and didn't look like himself for a majority of the playoffs. It's hard to get a solid take on the season Kemba had, as he battled a nagging knee injury from January on and had to accept not being the first floor option that he was in Charlotte. Kemba took on the role of being a mentor and watching Tatum and Brown develop to what the Celtics hope they could be with a smile on his face, though. Danny Ainge won't trade Kemba just one year into a max contract, as it would be a bad look for the front office after they brought him in to replace Kyrie Irving. Boston will give Kemba more opportunities next season to prove he's the player they signed last June, but it is worth noting that at 30 years old and with a history of knee injuries, this contract could come back to bite Boston.
At the end of the day, though, the future is still very much bright for the Celtics. The team's inexperience and lack of veterans can be rectified during the offseason. The 'Jays' duo proved to be one of the best young pairs in the NBA and they have a nice supporting cast of players around them to boot. If the Celtics can trade for a player like Myles Turner or add a veteran who can come off the bench to either be an enforcer on the boards or knock down shots, they'll be set up for immediate and long-term success. Looking at the future, the Heat will likely be the biggest challenge for the C's, especially if they manage to recruit Giannis or Kawhi when they become free agents after the 2021 season. Speaking of Giannis, if he were to leave and sign out West, the Celtics won't have to worry about Milwaukee any longer.
The Brooklyn Nets could pose some trouble with a healthy pairing of KD and Kyrie. However, we don't know if they can live up to their championship expectations until we see how healthy KD is and if Steve Nash was the right choice to be the team's head coach. Toronto has an aging roster besides Pascal Siakam and could be retooling their roster as soon as next season. There are a lot of what if's, but the next five years for the Celtics look like they could be quite promising. There's even the potential for the East to run through Boston if all goes well. So embrace how fortunate we are to have a young roster that could become unstoppable in the next few years. Stay patient Boston, we'll get to banner 18. No need to panic. As a wise man once said, "Stay Mellow." See you next season, Celtics fans!
- Corey (@celticshive)