Seemingly ascending Celtics take significant step backward with loss to Heat

BOSTON — The seventh game of the series felt as though it was decided on the first possession.

The Boston Celtics claimed the opening tip-off and set up their offense under the roar of a raucous TD Garden that had just shown a pregame video of the Boston Red Sox erasing a 3-0 series deficit against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. The crowd erupted as though it had been momentarily guided through a rift in time and space to personally watch David Ortiz hit that walk-off home run in the 12th inning at Fenway Park.

But a twist of fate felled the ankle of the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, quickly deflating an impossibly hopeful audience of 19,156 that longed for the Celtics — like the Red Sox did 19 years ago — to become the first in its sport to come all the way back.

The Celtics missed their first 12 shots from three-point range while the Miami Heat made virtually every other shot from beyond the arc. The Celtics’ incredibly poor execution dug them an early hole they did not escape. Tatum, perhaps the most gifted offensive player in the NBA, scored just 14 points on a sprained ankle as Boston managed an anemic 84 points on 39% shooting (21% from 3-point range) in a Game 7 defeat Monday.

“Not being able to finish it on your home floor is super disappointing,” Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon said after the game. “And then getting beat the way we got beat … They handled us tonight. That is definitely disappointing.”

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The Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown and Grant Williams embrace during the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Miami Heat.
The Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown and Grant Williams embrace during the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Miami Heat.

The Celtics, who lost three home games during the series, were run out of their own building by the Heat.

"We failed. I failed,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said after the game. “And we let the whole city down."

The Celtics’ mantra in 2023 was “unfinished business,” a rallying cry born from their 2022 NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors. The ubiquitous phrase, also used for marketing and apparel purposes, even had the letters “is” stylized to resemble the number 18 — which is one more championship than the Celtics currently own.

Perhaps the Celtics got ahead of themselves with that campaign.

“I came here to win a championship,” said Brogdon, who won the NBA’s sixth man of the year award in his first season with the Celtics. “I thought we had a great season … and this is definitely crushing for me personally.”

Still, an opportunity to resolve their unfinished business came right to the Celtics’ house and knocked on their door Monday. But the Celtics didn’t just not answer. They were asleep on the couch.

“This is difficult because for so many years this building has been so special,” Celtics forward Al Horford said after the game. “It’s disappointing losing so many games here. We talked about ways to come out and have the edge at home. For whatever reason, we just kind of let loose a little bit at home thinking we’ll be fine. That’s something we’ll have to look at.”

If 2023 was about unfinished business, which words will the Celtics use to personify their 2024 campaign — one that will feature a supposedly ascending team on the heels of a significant step backward?

The Celtics were thought to be ready for the next step and for their young core to bring home the first of what Boston hopes will be several championships. But they missed a golden opportunity to get Tatum, Brown and Co. their first ring.

Boston’s road to banner No. 18 could not have been clearer. No Milwaukee. No Golden State. No LeBron. Green lights the entire way.

But the Celtics never played well at home. They were unrecognizable from game to game. And Tatum, Boston’s best player, vanished far too often for long stretches of playoff games.

Tatum, who said he was “a shell of himself” after the ankle injury, said missing out on the Finals was “not the outcome we anticipated.”

Still, the Heat won the series as much as Boston lost it. Miami’s incredible shooting and consistent contributions from role players proved deadly. Regardless, the Celtics should never have needed to win four in a row, just like they should not never have been forced into a Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the previous round.

The Celtics entered the 2022-23 season wholly concerned with the unfinished business of winning a championship. But as soon as the lights got bright, why were the Celtics incapable of handling their own business?

“That’s a really good question because we addressed a lot of those things,” Horford said. “And right now I don’t have an answer for you. We were like, ‘Hey, we have to be better.’ And it’s something that continues to happen. It’s a pattern that happens with us.

“We’re going to have to do some soul-searching there because some things have to change in that regard. We had a great opportunity … and we failed.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Boston Celtics have more 'unfinished business' after playoff failure