If the Celtics are unsure of what to do after a disappointing playoff defeat, they only need to listen to … Pat Riley?
Here’s some of what Riley said in 2014, shortly after the Heat lost their second Finals in four years despite having Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh on the same team.
“I think we need to have a perspective about things,” Riley said. “I think everybody needs to get a grip … I’ve been here for 45 years in the NBA, and I’ve witnessed dynasties. I’ve witnessed great teams. The ’80s Lakers, five championships in 12 years. So what does that mean? Seven times they didn’t win. In that run, they didn’t win. You got to deal with it. You got to come back.
“This stuff is hard. And you got to stay together, if you got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it if you have an opportunity. … We’re gonna find out what we’re made of here. … It’s about what we have built over four years here. And we have a chance to do something significant.
“But losing is just as much a part of it as winning is. And when you’re a team, you deal with it.”
At the time, Riley’s speech was a thinly veiled message directed at his stars, all of whom had player options and an opportunity to end Miami’s Big Three experiment. And it didn’t exactly work, as James ultimately decided to leave the franchise. (You may have read about that in a certain magazine.)
But there was wisdom in Riley’s words. And Boston would be wise to heed them.
Since 2020, the Celtics are second only to the Heat in playoff wins. If they had won on their home floor Monday, the C’s would have been the only team to make the Finals twice in the last four seasons, with Miami now holding that distinction. For all the talk of how disappointing this Celtics season is—and the team undeniably, unequivocally fell short of expectations—breaking up the core of one of the most successful postseason teams of its era would be incredibly shortsighted.
This stuff is hard. Losing is just as much a part of it as winning is.
Seriously, what are the expectations here? For Boston to be a dynasty?
Jayson Tatum, who was clearly hindered in the Game 7 loss with an ankle injury, is only 25 years old. Jaylen Brown is 26. Both of them still have time to reach the peak of their careers. Because in the last two years, they lost to one of the greatest teams of all time in the Finals and then to a heated rival in the conference finals, people want to break them up? Really?
How many NBA franchises are desperate for the success Boston has had in the last four seasons? How many years back do the Knicks have to go for 36 playoff wins? If anything, Tatum and Brown are victims of their own success. Brown has made the conference finals in five of his first seven seasons as a pro. For Tatum, it’s four out of his first six. That’s not normal! Since 2017—when Tatum entered the league—Giannis Antetokounmpo has lost in the first round (twice) as many times as he’s made the conference finals. Nikola Jokić has two MVPs … and also has only two conference finals appearances to show for it.
We got to get a grip on greatness and on teams.
Yes, obviously the Celtics haven’t been able to win a championship. But they’ve given themselves as good a chance as any franchise in the last four years to capture one. Think about some of the teams that have actually won and how quickly bad management stripped them of contender status. The Lakers won only two playoff games total in the two seasons after their 2020 title. The Warriors won a championship and promptly decided to embark on a bizarre youth movement that sabotaged their title defense. The idea of blowing up Boston’s roster is fun Twitter fodder for trade-machine enthusiasts—and heck, I may gin up a fake trade or two myself—but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea in reality.
So yes, give Brown a supermax extension so the core of him and Tatum is locked in. Consider bringing back Grant Williams if the price doesn’t get too high—because the new tax concerns as a result of the CBA are a legitimate obstacle. You could even bring back Joe Mazzulla, who almost helmed arguably the greatest comeback in NBA history in his first season as a head coach, after taking over the team under unprecedented circumstances.
What the Celtics have proved over the last four seasons is they are not far away. They’ve come incredibly close to winning a championship. I don’t see how taking a wrecking ball to a roster with two young stars who still have room to improve will bring them closer to winning it all than blowing it up. No, it won’t be easy. And yes, the team will need to be shrewd building around Tatum and Brown as the new CBA makes it onerous to spend deeper into the tax.
But this is the price of success and expectations. The losses hurt more. That’s not a good enough reason to give up on this team. Shoot, if Boston had made a few more threes in Games 1 or 2, this wouldn’t even be a conversation.
No roster is perfect. And bringing back the core is not the same as not looking for upgrades elsewhere on the roster. The Celtics are close, and that’s what’s made the end of the last two seasons deeply frustrating for them. But truly great teams don’t crumble when adversity mounts. They find a way to deal with it. And Boston’s core—particularly Tatum and Brown—has done more than enough to give itself a chance to fight through the latest setback.