2024 NBA Playoffs

After dominant regular season, Celtics seek 'next level' in playoffs

Even with a standout 60-win season, atoning for recent playoff letdowns remains Boston's sole focus.

New additions Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis helped spark an epic regular season in Boston.

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There was an absence of bubbly, both in liquor and emotion, when the Boston Celtics captured their 60th win and the playoffs’ No. 1 seed. Anyone searching for hoopla instead could maybe find it several blocks from TD Garden at the bar that spawned the legendary sitcom, “Cheers.”

Otherwise, in the Celtics’ locker room, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla went man-to-man, hand extended, told them job well done. And then …

“We wake up tomorrow, no one cares.”

The fact the Celtics ho-hummed the moment says plenty about what happened the previous six months. And also what they anticipate to occur over the next three.

They just lapped the field, especially in the East, where the Celtics need a telescope to locate whoever will finish second. Their degree of regular-season dominance was impressive in breadth and depth, undeniable from start to finish.

The only head-scratcher was failing to reach the In-Season Tournament final round, which wasn’t the title they sought, anyway.

They never lost more than two straight. They lost only three at the Garden. They whomped three teams by 50 or more points. The only team to claim the season series over Boston was the Denver Nuggets, which, considering they’re the defending champs, is forgivable.

They’re the only team that’ll finish in double-digits in plus/minus and they rank No. 1 in offensive rating (122.2) and No. 2 in defensive rating (110.5). Basically, and by almost every metric, this was among the more impressive regular seasons in recent NBA history.

“A lot of hard work went into it,” said forward Jaylen Brown.

But understand, this process didn’t start last October on Opening Night (a win in New York). If we’re being honest, today’s results were born of frustration and embarrassment from last May and the previous summer.

What made this season possible was blowing a 2-1 lead on the Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals, then getting Jimmy Butler’ed by Miami in the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals, losing Game 7 … in the Garden!

The home fans sneered the Celtics off the floor, a completely different noise that saluted the players last week with the redemptive 60th win. That said, there’s a sense of job-not-finished amongst these Celtics. The championship stakes are high, and they fall steeply if they come up short (again).

“All year we played good basketball,” said veteran center Al Horford, “to put ourselves in this position. We know what we’re up against.”

Stevens’ roster remodel pays off

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens was restless, which you don’t normally see from those who lord over title contenders. He seems to subscribe to the theory that if you’re standing still, you’re going backward.

How else to explain what he did last summer — adding Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, giving Brown the biggest contract in NBA history, then most recently, trading for valuable reserve Xavier Tillman Jr. on the cheap? (Oh, and Stevens just brokered a four-year extension for Holiday as the playoffs loom.)

The Executive of the Year Award should be a runaway for Stevens, much like the Celtics’ dominance this season. The only meaningful asset sacrificed was reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, and seeing how the Celtics replaced him with Holiday, the loss is minimal if any.

The wild card is Porzingis, and so far, so solid. His 20.2 points per game gives Boston another scorer to play alongside Brown and Jayson Tatum. He’s also a rim protector (1.9 bpg) next to Horford and Luke Kornet. If this 7-foot-3 center doesn’t shrink in the postseason, or get hurt — neither would be a shock — good luck denying Boston.

“On the defensive side, it’s his ability to be solid, put his hands up and contest shots at the rim that will be crucial,” Brown said. “When he makes his mind up to do that, and not taking any plays off, that takes our team to another level. We need to encourage that. Because in the playoffs, one or two possessions could determine the game. We need that Kristaps to show up and be strong.”

Mazzula grows as Celtics’ coach

The only questionable decision by Stevens since assuming front office control was hiring a neophyte as coach. But understand — the hasty departure of Ime Udoka two autumns ago put Stevens in a pinch. Training camp beckoned, the best outside candidates were gone, and elevating an assistant coach who knew the personnel seemed the safest bet.

Then Mazzulla’s inexperience was stripped naked in last year’s playoffs, especially against the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra in the East Finals. When the Celtics fell behind 3-0 with a 26-point Game 3 shellacking and Mazzulla said “I just didn’t have them ready to play,” howls for his head were heard around Causeway Street.

Since then, Mazzulla has made amends. He added Sam Cassell to upgrade the coaching staff. He addressed his needed areas of growth, namely in his game strategy and use of personnel.

You ask his coaches and players about Mazzulla and they salute him for that, and credit him for this season’s success, even if voters for Coach of the Year probably won’t.

He has prodded players yet listened to them, taken advice from his staff and empowered them, all to repay the faith Stevens placed in him. Yes, true enough, we’ll see what Mazzulla learned when the spring and summer heat rises. Still …

“Having us play at this level, and be this consistent as a team, and finding new ways to challenge us, I feel like Joe has done that for us,” Horford said. “Give a lot of credit for him to put us in this position.”

Potential speed bumps loom for Boston

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have a big load to carry as Boston aims for another Finals run in 2024.

The Celtics have been at their best when blowing teams out, and solid even in close games, though at times they’ve also been at their worst whenever the score — and neck muscles — tighten in closing minutes.

They became rattled after losing a 30-point lead to the Hawks on March 25, almost a replay of their blown 22-point fourth-quarter lead to the Cavs on March 5 and a 28-point lead last season to the Nets.

Relaxing while leading big isn’t restricted to the Celtics. What can be problematic is when Tatum, their Kia MVP candidate and lead singer, finds himself in crunch time.

As this season comes to a close, Tatum has shot 36% in clutch situations and 33% from deep, among the lowest by players who’ve attempted at least 45 shots. That’s not ideal for your No. 1 option entering the playoffs.

“I know I’ve missed a couple this year,” he said. “That’s part of it. There are things I can do better. It’s a make-or-miss league. I enjoy being in those situations.”

It’s important to resist labeling Tatum. He has come up big before. And remember, he dropped 51 points on the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the 2023 Eastern Conference Semifinals. He also turned to vapor in the 2022 Finals, hassled by Andrew Wiggins.

So it’s a mixed bag — until and unless he does something special in a championship setting. Then he’ll be a crunch-time hero again because that’s how these conversations go.

Besides, maybe the Celtics need to be less predictable than demanding Tatum bail them out while being double- and triple-teamed. There’s Brown and Porzingis and even Derrick White. And that’s on Mazzulla.

“At times (it’s) isolation, at times moving the ball for the best shot we can get,” Horford said. “It’s just continuing to read the game especially when it gets late. Teams are going to throw things at us. We just have to be ready for it.”

No. 1 overall seed doesn’t always bear fruit

The Celtics need to know the postseason graveyard is scattered with the bones of big dogs who stumbled off the porch, and the tombstones are tremendous.

Here rests the 2019 and 2020 Milwaukee Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the 2018 Houston Rockets with James Harden and Chris Paul, and the 2011 Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose. Oh, and look — isn’t that the record-setting 73-win Warriors in that mausoleum over there?

In the last 20 years, only five teams with the best record won the title that season. This means, 15 came up short, for the algebra-challenged. The last best-record champ was the 2016-17 Warriors.

Given all that, is it possible that the odds … are stacked against these Celtics who just monster-trucked through the regular season?

“When the playoffs start,” Brown said, “it’s back to square one.”

But don’t get it twisted.

“It’s a blessing to be on a 60-win team,” Brown added. “We’re excited for this journey in which we’re about to embark.”

They should. This franchise is equipped to welcome an 18th banner. Size, shooting, defense, depth, two All-Stars, one MVP candidate, it’s all there, all on display during a season where little doubt was left.

“We want to feel like when we turn it up, we’re invincible, no one can mess with us,” Porzingis said. “We have that next level we can go to.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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