BOSTON — Before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals tie against the Philadelphia 76ers, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzula said, “It’s not much different than the regular season,” and his team played like it.
As was the case in Sunday’s Game 4 loss, Boston lacked the energy it needed from the rebound and the deficit ballooned to double digits before halftime. Only this time, the defending conference champions never quite matched their opponent’s competitiveness or made it interesting, falling 115-103 to the brink of elimination.
“That was the first playoff game we didn’t play well in my opinion,” said Mazzula, who missed Game 1 and most of Game 4 of that series and Game 5 of their first-round win over the Atlanta Hawks.
The Sixers take a 3-2 lead against Philadelphia for Game 6 on Thursday at 7:30 PM ET.
Rarely has TD Garden been so lifeless in the playoffs. The boos began in the second quarter, and late in the third, when the Celtics watched Tyrese Maxey’s pass go unchallenged, the crowd’s scorn reached its peak. In the rare moments they played inspired enough to hold their fans’ attention — forcing a 24-second offense with 14 late in the third and cutting the deficit to 11 on Jayson Tatum and one early in the fourth — they accordingly turned the ball over and allowed another wide open triple.
“The energy wasn’t right,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “It could have been better, a lot better. We know that. We understand that. Tonight speaks volumes. It shows that if you’re not ready … it can happen.”
“We’ve been booed before,” added Tatum, who scored 36 points, “so it’s nothing new. We’ve been in this position before and we didn’t play well today. The fans could see it. You saw And we know it.”
It was an apathetic loss in a growing number of them for a team that has led the NBA in net rating the past two seasons, and there is no shortage of recriminations. The roster is sure to start on local sports radio with Mazzula, the 34-year-old who took over the top job after Ime Udoka was suspended before training camp for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with subordinate and top assistant Will Hardy, who left for the Utah Jazz.
There are certainly valid criticisms. The Celtics stuck to a drop-pick-and-roll coverage that not only allowed James Harden to shoot from distance, but also gave Joel Embiid the freedom to feast on his effortless jumpers. The worst of both worlds. After not calling a timeout on a botched final play that cost them Game 4, Mazzula said, “I’m definitely going to learn from it.” He expressed a similar sentiment after losing to the Embiid-less Sixers in Game 1. It’s not what want to hear from a contender’s coach.
Then there’s the matter of a team that made it to the Finals with defense as its calling card now branding itself as a team that ranks first on offense. Their 117.3 points per 100 possessions did lead the East during the regular season.
“Our strength is our offensive management,” Mazzula told reporters during practice between Games 1 and 2. “This team has been built on defense for a very, very long time. They have the DNA of that and we’re always going to play hard, but we manage the game best with our attacking decision-making.”
You might want to rethink that after Games 4 and 5. When the Celtics’ 3-pointers aren’t falling, as they weren’t Tuesday (27.3 percent on 33 attempts before garbage time), and when the stagnation of matchup demand has displaced ball movement. the defense can keep them at striking distance, but it’s nowhere to be found. They allowed 121 points per 100 possessions in just 11 games during the regular season and won seven of them. They have now given up that many in six of their 11 playoff games, including all five of their losses.
“We gave up everything they wanted us to give up,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said.
It’s a major problem, but it’s not Boston’s only one. The players are not infallible either. Late-game mental breakdowns like Game 4 of this series and lulls like Game 5 when they played as if their talent advantage alone would lead to victory have been the norm for three straight years under coach Brad Stevens , Udoka and Mazula. Stevens’ in-game adjustments narrowed the margin for error, as did Udoka’s blunt force, but ultimately the players must learn from their considerable experience.
Tatum and Brown are just entering their prime, but have played 84 playoff games together. If the Celtics still aren’t willing to admit the partnership has a sub-championship ceiling — and it’s reasonable to believe they can still climb — Stevens, now Boston’s head of basketball operations, will have questions to answer. answered after Brown’s next contract if that team loses to a team he previously owned.
Should Smart have the third-highest usage rate in a key game for a team that also boasts Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon in the backfield? Al Horford turns 37 next month, and Robert Williams III hasn’t played with the same bounce since last year’s knee surgery. And where did Grant Williams go?
As the final minutes ticked away in their fourth Game 5 loss in five tries, the Celtics’ starters watched from the bench. Horford hugged Tatum and Brown and told them something he’d rather keep in the locker room, but surely they can all see what lies ahead: the promise of playing a potential eight seed in the conference finals for the right to face one of the wrong teams of the West for a title.
“The past is the past,” Brown said. “We can talk about a lot of things that have happened in this series that could have gone the other way and not happened. We have a great opportunity in front of us and dwelling on the past would take that opportunity away from us. We just have to be ready to play basketball. It is.”
Like Mazzula, Boston’s young stars must learn from their past mistakes, and that’s not so easy after two days. It takes years, and they’re six seasons into the championship chase. If they can’t fix them for a win or go home 6 game in Philadelphia, the Celtics should at least start wondering if they ever will.