What happened to the team that played the second half of the season like it had nothing left to lose, because it didn’t?
What happened to the team with the second best record in the Eastern Conference since February 3rd?
What happened to the team that was composed mostly of players picked up off the street, but still got the job done?
The short answer is that the Boston Celtics were simply outplayed by the Cleveland Cavaliers. That much is clear. But what isn’t clear is why the playoff Boston Celtics looked nothing like the end-of-the-regular-season Boston Celtics.
Apr 26, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts after being called for a foul on Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) during the second half in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
They lacked energy. They lacked a desire to send King James and company home early. Honestly, it looked like they lacked fundamentals. It’s surprising, but then again, that’s been the theme of the whole season.
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They surprised everyone by shipping Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green off to Dallas and Memphis. They surprised everyone by winning their final eight games to snatch up the seventh seed in the East, with a ragtag team put together by MacGyver.
They played with tenacity during that stretch. They played like they wanted it. They might have played their best basketball all season then. You could tell how far players like Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk had come since the beginning of the season.
But from the onset of their first round playoff series, you could tell how far they had to go before they could truly contend again. You could probably chalk that up to a lack of playoff experience, or NBA experience in general. Out of the 15 players on the Celtics active roster, only Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley have played postseason basketball before.
Apr 26, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Brandon Bass (30) dunks the ball during the second half in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers. at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Over half the roster has been in the league for two years or less. It’s understandable then, that this is new territory for most of the squad and they might be a little nervous. It’s not, however, an excuse to play like the team they were at the beginning of the season. Because that was an entirely different roster with a different attitude. Any fleeting thoughts of the pre-All Star break Celtics should have been purged.
Overall, the momentum in the series never shifted in favor of the Celtics, and Game 4 was an unpleasant summary of the series as a whole.
The first half was nothing short of a disaster, as the Celtics shamefully retreated to the locker room down 57-36. The team looked flat. The usually reliable Isaiah Thomas didn’t have a single field goal. Eight three-pointers were attempted. None went in.
They weren’t taking care of the ball either, allowing six steals while getting none of their own. They couldn’t even capitalize on the boost Lady Luck tried to give them. Kevin Love left early in the first quarter with a shoulder injury, and Kendrick Perkins was called for a flagrant 1 and a techincal foul.
Apr 26, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) injures his shoulder during the first half in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Boston Celtics. at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
The Celtics got another lucky break early in the third quarter when J.R. Smith elbowed Jae Crowder and was subsequently ejected. From there, it did seem like things were going uphill for Boston. They committed only one turnover and outscored Cleveland 25-13. They were getting fired up. TD Garden was getting fired up. But there were still too many mistakes.
They only made one of the six three-pointers they attempted. They missed seven free throws. You can’t do that. When you get fouled, the other team is essentially giving you an uncontested chance at making your shot again. You have to make the most of those chances. Free throws can determine the outcome of a game when it comes down to the wire in the fourth quarter, and although the Celtics put up abysmal free throw numbers, that rather large blemish didn’t make or break this game in particular.
Only down nine at the end of the third quarter, the Celtics were really starting to find their groove, and Jared Sullinger embodied that groove with a buzzer beater that capped off a 17-7 run to close out the quarter.
Apr 26, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger (7) reacts after making a basket during the second half in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers. at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
The “Let’s go Celtics” chants were louder and more frequent during the fourth quarter, due largely in part to Thomas, who was trying to get the crowd to share the pumped-up adrenaline the team was feeling. There was energy on the court and in the stands. And even when Cleveland was pulling away late, the Celtics kept the energy up.
Maybe if the Celtics had actually started the game with the same energy they ended it with, they might be back on the court for Game 5. Maybe if they had come out with confidence and a winning mentality, their shots might have found the net and not the front of the rim, as they did so often today.
Maybe they treated the end of the regular season more like the playoffs than they did the actual playoffs, and used up all their energy then. Maybe the young guys weren’t ready. Maybe they’ll use this as a learning experience.
Maybe now they know the level of energy required to succeed in the NBA Playoffs. And maybe when they find themselves in the same situation next season, they’ll expend that energy at the right time.