The Nets, true to Kevin Durant’s stated hope, don’t have to come back to Boston.
And the Celtics, should they each choose, don’t have to return to their NBA home for awhile, either. Warmer climes beckon for the team that, with Tuesday night’s 123-109 Game 5 loss to Brooklyn, was officially bounced out of the first round of the playoffs.
The Celtics, with Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Robert Williams all sidelined, simply didn’t have the firepower to match one of the great offensive units in NBA history, with Durant (24 points), James Harden (34) and Kyrie Irving (25) all, per usual, making all of the necessary shots.
Jayson Tatum, who had scored 90 points over the previous two games, simply couldn’t carry the offense for one more night under these conditions, though his 32-point performance was the highlight on a night when the Celtics just couldn’t make shots.
For a player who crossed the 50-point barrier four times this season — four more times than any other 23-year-old in Celtics history — the burden was significant on a team that couldn’t stay healthy.
“I think he handled it about as well as he could possibly handle it,” said Brad Stevens. “The amount of attention that he’s getting throughout the whole season, but especially the last couple games is really hard to operate under.
“(Brooklyn had) a lot of smart players,” said the Celtics coach. “Kevin Durant is all over him with great length and ability to challenge shots and Jayson just continuously found ways to make plays. I thought that he did a really good job. Obviously, we didn’t do enough as a team tonight to be successful, but I think that he showed a lot of mettle this year when you consider what he went through with COVID, what he went through with coming back from COVID and then the level he went to at the end of the year.”
And the absence of consistent support for the rising stars of Tatum and Brown — Walker alone missed 32 games this season to a knee-resting program and, this month, a bone bruise in the same knee — undercut what the Celtics could accomplish.
Marcus Smart, for one, believes that this tells the complete story of the 2020-21 Celtics. Smart also believes that the current roster is good enough to return.
“Listen. We’ve been to the Eastern Conference Finals three of the four years we’ve been here, we’ve been to the playoffs every year,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. This is the first year we’ve played with that many guys out of our core group that was out. I don’t know. My job is to go out there and do everything I can to help the team win.
“The business side you leave to the front office and you just hope they do the right things and they do things to help this team,” he said. “I don’t think it’s nothing to stress about. We probably have a lot of fans, just a lot of people on the outside probably thinking this and that, but three out of four years we’ve been to the Eastern Conference Finals, we’ve been to the playoffs every year, and this is one year when we didn’t have everybody, we didn’t have a full year, and it affected us. I think we’re alright, but that’s not my decision to make.”
Nowhere was the path of the season more illustrated than in Walker’s struggles with injuries.
“It’s tough. It’s been really tough especially because over the course of my career, I’ve played so many games when I’ve been healthy,” he said. “I came to Boston to be a part of those special runs and be a part of high intensity games and fans going wild and I wasn’t able to be a part of that unfortunately. Just try to get right. I gotta get right.”
Asked if he anticipates changes to the lineup by next season, Walker shook his head.
“I have no idea. Just need time to reflect,” he said. “It’s just so soon. I do think we have a special group, obviously with Jayson, Jaylen, those two guys emerging with what they did this year. They are two special talents and I do think we have a special group. We can definitely learn from this season.”