Maze game

Boston Celtics’ dream playoff ends with a whimper in Game 6 loss

By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist

BOSTON— Smart Marcus left the media conference room and began to make his way through the underground corridors of TD Garden. His Celtics-the green pants matched his Celtics green hair, which was a bit longer than it was at the start of the playoffs and Boston had yet to lose the NBA Finals at the Warriors in six games.

The smell of cigar smoke from Golden State’s championship celebration and the distant cries of its happy players wafted through the air. Near Smart, however, the only sound was his sniffles.

The Celtics’ green sneakers for Defensive Player of the Year were embroidered with sequins and shimmered under the fluorescent lights as he hung out on the mat with a member of team staff. Before Smart exited the maze and headed for the wider hallways where his family and friends had gathered, he put on his sunglasses to hide the redness that was ringing in his eyes.

Entering the public space again, he thought he was still holding the door for the person behind him.

Smart’s sparkly shoes almost mocked Boston’s 103-90 Game 6 loss. They were party shoes, shoes in which it’s almost silly to be sad, like crying while wearing a clown nose. .

These sneakers were what this Celtics team was at its best: brash, gritty and layered, with a sweltering depth and brightness that blinded opponents. This team started 19-21 then, after Jan. 10, went 32-10. He finished the season with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and the best defense in the league.

“We went through hell to get here,” Smart said.

It’s true. These guys weren’t supposed to be here. They weren’t supposed to make it to the finals under rookie head coach Ime Udoka, let alone look like they could win it all after winning Game 3 to take a 2- 1 in the series.

But Boston didn’t blindside anyone on Thursday. In fact, every player looked like a deer in the headlights, if the deer could play hot potato with a basketball instead of driving to the rim. The team lacked the courage and confidence they had played with to get to this point. The Celtics were erratic, with flashes of old greatness, but they never backed it up or kicked it into overdrive.

Perhaps it was the lack of experience in the playoff scene, especially against a Warriors team that has been together so often in the playoffs. Perhaps it was the fact that no Celtics players made it to the Finals, so there was no one to right the ship when the players started to get bogged down mentally.

Maybe the team just lacked the cohesion they were previously able to pull together with bandages and whatever held Robert Williams III’s knee together.

“They won and we lost,” Jaylen Brown said after the game. “We did it to ourselves. We had the opportunity to come up and win, and I guess we showed our immaturity at times. And it stings. [We’re] still a young group, still has a lot to learn.

“[There’s] nothing to chew on. Tough day for Boston. Tough day for the Celtics. I do not know what to say.”

On Thursday, every Boston player seemed afraid to be the one shooting. All players except Al Horford, who played 141 playoff games in 15 years before advancing to the final. As the game wore on, he sank 3s and made a monster block that (cruelly) held out some hope for Celtics fans.

But Horford couldn’t help the others looking slow and demoralized, and he couldn’t inspire the confidence his young teammates needed to take critical hits. As a result, Boston players kept passing the ball to someone else until someone finally returned it.

This is not hyperbole. The Celtics had 21 turnovers on Thursday. When they were under 15, they were 13-2 in the playoffs and 2-0 in the Finals. More than 15? The team went 1-8 in the playoffs and 0-4 in the Finals.

As Udoka said after the match, “You can look at the box score and see if we won or lost based on a few things.”

Young Boston superstar Jayson Tatum on Thursday became the first player to score 100 turnovers in a single postseason. It’s not the kind of story anyone wants to make – especially not a player who has been hailed as The Guy. The same guy who made a buzzer-beating layup to win Game 1 in the first round against the Nets. The same guy who put on a 46 point, nine rebound and four assist performance in Game 6 against Milwaukee to send the series to a Game 7. The same guy who scored 31 to force another Game 7 against Miami in the Finals of conference.

This guy never really made it to the finals. He had a few good games but none that could count as a definitive Tatum Game and mark his undisputed arrival in the pantheon of legendary Finals performances.

But Tatum didn’t bring the Celtics here alone. Far from there. On Thursday, Brown showed up to try and win the team, scoring 31 points.

Still, he and Tatum each had five turnovers.

And all season, Smart has been the beating heart of this team, leaving everything on the pitch as he stuck to opposing offenses like glue. Horford brought a level of experience – if ultimately not enough – that seemed to comfort the young team. Williams III played in pain, Grant Williams had a monster game when it mattered in Game 7 against the Bucks, and Brown consistently proved why he and Tatum are Boston’s future superstar. Derrick White, Payton Pritchard and many others have contributed to the success of the Celtics.

At the start of these playoffs, many people talked about the first-round series against the Nets as if Boston had lost before it started. Kevin Durant was too big a name and too big a presence.

It turns out that a real team is too much for one player.

Game 6 of the Finals was therefore the ultimate example of Boston’s season. It was less for the Warriors to clinch and more for the Celtics to once again win with their backs against the wall – or lose.

And this time, instead of rising to the occasion, they got scared or scared. They seemed to lose confidence in themselves. And because no player could decisively win or lose the game, they all lost it together.

TS Eliot might as well have written his poem “The Hollow Men” about the 2022 Celtics: “This is how the season ends, not with a bang but with a groan.” Or at least that was how it was as time ticked away in the fourth quarter, with the Warriors main building and Boston players looking like shells of themselves.

Afterwards, Brown kept saying how bright the future is for Boston. But getting back to the Finals — thanks to a healthy Bucks team, a healthy Heat team, a Nets team with a Durant with a lot to prove, and Joel Embiid’s Sixers — won’t be an easy task.

However, let us choose optimism. These Celtics have wanted themselves to this point, and if Boston fans are lucky, they will do it again. They certainly have talent. It could be the painful experience that keeps them hungry.

“You don’t want to feel like this anymore, but you want to come back here,” Tatum said after the game. “So, yeah, it’s going to fuel us.”

Maybe one day Smart will wear those sparkly sneakers again to celebrate a championship. And perhaps, rather than backing down from the task, each player will claim to be the one to end the opposing team’s season on a high.

Charlotte Wilder is a generalist columnist and co-host of “The People’s Sports Podcastfor FOX Sports. She’s honored to represent the consistently overlooked Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings, and is happiest eating a hot dog in a stadium or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.

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