What did Boston Celtics’ playoff run, and 2022-23 season, mean in the end?

It's easy to be sad after the Boston Celtics lost Game 7, and easier to start wondering about the future -- but don't do that, instead think for a minute (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
It's easy to be sad after the Boston Celtics lost Game 7, and easier to start wondering about the future -- but don't do that, instead think for a minute (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Whenever a team gets eliminated, the media begins asking all sorts of questions about their future. And there is definitely a time for that for Boston Celtics fans, but it’s not right now. Emotions are fresh, big-picture thinking is impossible, and rash oversimplifications are inevitable. Everyone is grieving the season, one that ultimately came five wins away from a championship.

But periods of grief are the worst time to start planning for the future. I, for one, usually deal with my sadness by thinking about stuff, so I’m going to do that. And I’ve got a question.

What was this series?

Obviously, it wasn’t one thing. But we’re here to think, so let’s see if we can boil it down to as pure a substance as we can, and I have two contenders which I will present for official review.

For one, it made me think about the structure and meaning of an NBA playoff series on a meta-level, and what teams are actually trying to accomplish in each game. The greatest of series—and don’t mistake, this was a great series—have a back-and-forth feel to them, kind of like a boxing match. Each team trades blows until someone lands a knockout.

But Heat-Celtics III (in this era at least) was very unusual. It was only the fourth time ever that both teams had won three straight games in the same series, so it ended up laying some things bare that I almost never consider. Far from the back and forth of boxing, it actually felt more like an 18th-century pistol duel, with each team firing off one super-powered three-game run at the other.

And because it was so polar, I managed to separate games pretty cleanly. I think there are two types of games in a series: elimination games and fluff games. “Fluff” might sound dismissive, but that’s exactly what they are: padding against unforeseen complications.

Games 1 through 3 of this series were fluffy, feather-filled throw pillows that the Heat used to break their fall three straight times. They won the opening battles of the war and bought themselves a full week of margin for error, and the Boston Celtics were left walking a tightrope without a net. Their margin for error was zero, and they only had one path out of this: do the impossible.

But that’s the thing about 18th-century pistol duels: generally, you want to fire first.

There’s a reason that what the Celtics had to do has been quote-unquote impossible for 76 years. In the grand scheme of a series, the early battles for fluff often make the difference. After Game 3, the Heat could take a bad shooting night, and they could take to rest Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo more than usual. They could even take a miracle, something they probably weren’t counting on. But they didn’t have to count on it, because they already had the fluff.

And despite swearing off the boxing metaphor five paragraphs ago, the Heat took three uppercuts to the chin and stayed standing. The Boston Celtics may have taken the fight to seven rounds, but they were only one punch away for the last four. And that’s the thing about basketball: stuff happens.

Because on the first possession of Game 7, Jayson Tatum landed on Gabe Vincent’s foot and turned his left ankle. Tatum still played 42 minutes but winced with every step. He was afraid to jump because he knew how much pain was coming when he landed. He scored 14 heart-wrenching points and couldn’t move on defense, something the Heat exploited again…and again…and again.

He was a liability, and clearly in immense pain. In truth, he probably shouldn’t have even been in the game.

But the Celtics just ran out of options to replace him. The usual break-glass-in-case-of-emergency shot creator Malcolm Brogdon was active but was basically unplayable because of his elbow injury. He played seven brutal minutes in which the Celtics were outscored by 15.

The only hope after Tatum went down was a transcendent game from Jaylen Brown, but the Heat had his number so down that they wrote it on a sticky note and put it on the fridge. He has always been turnover happy, but his inability to dribble through traffic makes the Heat come after him like a pack of hyenas. But it can be managed when Tatum can pull gravity away from him, but last night, that wasn’t going to happen.

All Tatum had to say about his injury after the game was that he was “a shell,” of himself which everyone with a pair of eyeballs could see for 47.9 minutes. But that didn’t make it any less sad. Because I’m still only 20 years old, Tatum might be the first Boston superstar whose journey I can completely remember from its beginning, and he desperately tried to fight back against elimination, even with his injury, something that he should—and I will—be proud of. But in the end, he was powerless, and that was heartbreaking.

Heartbreak may have been the final emotion I felt this season, but before, during, and after every game, I’ve felt every emotion in the emotional Rolodex—which happens to be contender #2 for what this series was—and published them accordingly. I spent the first week worried, confused, and ultimately hysterical, in disbelief that we were about to get swept.

But then I became hopeful because I couldn’t accept that this team—even with all its flaws—was just going to give up. And then they fought back, and I actually believed.

Game 6 was a torture chamber. Everything that could possibly have gone wrong did, simultaneously. In a game the Celtics led by double digits with only four minutes to play, it took the miracle of miracles to pull it out. And the players celebrated like they had just won the NBA Finals, and so did I.

Maybe that was telling of what was to come because Miami played Game 7 like it was a business trip. They knew they still had another chance, and were unfazed by the trauma and elation of the previous game. For the Boston Celtics themselves, their stress and anguish left their bodies in a blaze of Derrick White-fueled glory, and so perhaps they ran out of gas to keep fighting back.

But that reading of the series is needlessly pessimistic. I won’t apologize for what I felt after Game 6, and neither should the players. We are fooling ourselves if we believe we are actually in control of how we feel. Some people can keep up appearances, but imagine if eight months of blood, sweat, and tears flashed before your eyes, only to be saved by a miracle. You’d be a mess.

And then I was sad. Because unlike Game 6, the decisive blow came without any fireworks or intrigue. The Heat dispatched the Celtics like they were a procedural matter, and save for a lone rally in the third quarter spearheaded by the ever-glorious Derrick White, it felt like the C’s never really had a shot either.

It was a truly sad end to an incredible series. Tatum got injured immediately, the C’s started 0/11 from beyond the arc, with Brown himself turning the ball over eight times, more than the rest of the team combined. It was a blowout like Game 3, but a totally different colored one.

Game 3 saw the Celtics give up, and was more disgusting than sad. But they never gave up in Game 7. They fought to the bitter end, even picking up full court and forcing two steals down 20 with six minutes left, which is not exactly a deficit one typically overcomes. After three games of undeniable grit and fight from these guys, I didn’t have it in me to start slinging blame around. So I was just sad, and I was okay with that.

But was this all for nothing? Was this season an abject failure and nothing else?

The 2022-23 Boston Celtics season was far from a failure

Absolutely not.

Don’t you dare think that. Don’t you dare let your friends or family think that. Don’t even let your dog think that, or your cat for that matter. The stated goal of the season—as it is every season—is to put a new banner up in the rafters of TD Garden. But success is not such a linear concept; victories can come throughout the journey, not just at the end.

Sure, as soon as the Milwaukee Bucks—the lone team I was really afraid of going into these playoffs—fell to the Heat, I was more than just hopeful that Banner 18 could be on the horizon for the Boston Celtics. But it’s basketball, and stuff happens. But we can’t forget about all the little things that happened along the way.

Not that regular season success holds a candle to the playoffs, but here are some highlights just to make us all feel a little better. Jaylen Brown had—by far—the best season of his career, earning All-NBA Second Team honors and probably a massive extension from the Boston Celtics this summer. Malcolm Brogdon won Sixth Man of the Year in his first season with the team, which is nothing to sneer at either. Oh, and Tatum became the first Celtic ever to average 30 points per game in a season and finished fourth in MVP voting. I’d say that’s not nothing.

And it’s not like the playoffs were just a long march towards oblivion  The Hawks thing was… whatever, but during the Philly series, I demanded this team prove they had another gear after falling down 3-2, and Tatum and Co. rose to the occasion and then some. That’s certainly a success for me.

And against Miami, we can spend all the time in the world chastising the Celtics for getting themselves in a box and falling down 0-3 to a less talented team in the first place, but that misses my favorite lesson from this whole season.

Because it doesn’t matter if the season was a referendum on the goals of playoff games or an emotional Rolodex. Disaster is inevitable, both in basketball and in life. But we all have a choice as to how we respond to it, and the Celtics took the hard way—but the right way—and tried the last.

They had an out, but they refused to take it. This leads me to maybe my favorite Celtics accolade of all time:

The 2022-2023 Boston Celtics

First team in NBA history to come back from down 3-0 in a playoff series and force a HOME Game 7… and then lose said home Game 7. 

If I were in charge, the Boston Celtics would stitch this on a banner and ironically hang it in the rafters of the locker room—just so they never forget how it feels to stare down the impossible and lose, but also how it feels to fight back anyway. I guess there’s a reason that I’m not in charge.

All of this is pretty darn ironic considering I wrote this on April 26:

“…losing to the Heat [in the ECF] would be borderline apocalyptic, considering how overmatched they would be talent-wise… degrees of success: 0” 

In my defense, I wrote this before the Miami Heat started ripping through the East like a pack of wolves and before we discovered that Caleb Martin was just 1992 Michael Jordan in one of those Mission Impossible masks. And in the Oliver Fox School of Success Evaluation we encourage having an open mindset, so… don’t worry about that.