It is often said that each year’s NBA champion becomes the model — the ideal — for the other 29 contenders to the throne in the seasons to come.
While Boston doesn’t have a Nikola Jokic at its disposal, a shortcoming shared by 28 of its peers, it does have the ability to play with the same grit and offensive joie de hoop that defined the Nuggets’ run.
And, according to one prominent rival coach, that may be all the Celtics need to complete their now 15-year search for an 18th banner.
“As soon as a team gets knocked out of the playoffs — or doesn’t even make the playoffs — you start hearing about all the changes they need to make,” the coach told Heavy Sports. “Right now, there’s a whole lot of GMs and people with my job that would LOVE to see Boston make a bunch of changes. I mean, are there fans up there actually saying they should break up Brown and Tatum? Are you s***ting me?
“Sure, you always hope you can tweak things here or there to try to get better, but right now just about every team in the league would trade its roster for Boston’s straight up.”
Celtics ‘Just Went South’
And that fact, acknowledged by another coach, two general managers and a scout who spoke to Heavy, is apparently what makes the Celtics’ Game 7 collapse against Miami in the conference finals so hard for the team’s followers so hard to accept.
The reviews have been piercing.
“When things got tough, they went south,” said a source close to the Heat. “They just went south and didn’t do all the other things that got them there. It’s one thing when you’re missing 3s, but that should get you to dig in harder defensively, and they didn’t.
“(The Heat) always felt confident. Even when it got to the point where it was 3-3, they always felt confident that they were going to win — that when it came down to it at nut-crunch time, that they were going to win. They knew they had a couple of games that got away from them, but they still felt they could go into Boston and that, despite everything, through their toughness and versatility and depth, that they could win. They WOULD win.
“Their will to win and their toughness and the DNA of the players they have on the court was the difference. They all knew it.”
And while this source and others believe it would be foolish to separate Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, there is the strong feeling that the two need to find more ways to support each other’s ability.
“Each of them attracts so much attention,” said a GM. “You’d think they’d be more comfortable by now with playing off each other and knowing how to get each other great shots.
“I can’t remember too many times when one created for the other — when one made a move, gave it up and the other guy finished. It was always somebody else creating for one of them, and that makes them easier to guard.
“Realistically if they didn’t have Derrick White in that last series, they would have lost 4-0.”
‘If You Don’t Bring it, You’re Going to Lose’
Another league exec said the Celtics too easily lost their edge. He spoke of how it had been an accepted fact of NBA postseason play that the better team — the more talented team — could pretty much be guaranteed to emerge from a best-of-seven series.
“But if you don’t bring it, you’re going to lose,” he said. “It was different before this era, because you could always assume every team would bring it. But it’s not that way anymore. That’s why the more talented team doesn’t always win in a seven-game series anymore — when it was always that way. Now the better team has a chance to lose.”
The encouraging part for the Celts is that those around the league believe they already possess the fix. The discouraging part is that they haven’t put it to use on a consistent basis.
“That’s what makes this so crazy,” said a coach in a Heavy.com story from the season. “It’s in their hands. Most teams just don’t have the talent or the approach on either end of the floor to correct their problems. Boston does. And when you look at that roster, you’re surprised they ever have any problems in the first place. Every team has bad nights over the course of a season, but a team like this should have like one or two a month at most.”
Because they managed to have a few of those in one series, the Celtics had an extra month of offseason. Maybe in their free time they watched Denver in the Finals.