BOSTON — With 63 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka, his team trailing by 11, waved the white flag and replaced all five of his starters.
Jayson Tatum, after slowly trudging off the court, exchanged greetings with Boston players and coaches, untucked his No. 0 jersey, plopped into a seat on the bench and watched the Golden State Warriors celebrate their fourth championship in eight years.
“It hurts,” Tatum said after the Celtics’ season-ending 103-90 loss. “Being with this group, the things we’ve overcome throughout the season, getting to this point … just knowing how bad we wanted it, coming up short.
“It’s a terrible feeling.”
Tatum and fellow star wing Jaylen Brown became the fourth duo to be the top two scorers on a Finals team at 25 years old or younger, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
The Houston Rockets, led by Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, did it in 1986. Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway led the Orlando Magic to the Finals in 1995. Nearly two decades later it was Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook taking the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder to the league’s biggest stage.
After falling to the Warriors, Tatum, Brown and the Celtics now have something else in common with those prior teams: Each lost in the league’s championship round.
That stat, on its own, isn’t shocking. In order to win the sport’s ultimate prize, teams often have to lose it first. What’s more surprising is the other unfortunate fact shared among the first three elite squads on that list:
None of those duos ever made it back to the Finals.
As the Celtics head into the offseason after a stunning midseason turnaround brought them two wins from their first championship since 2008, they hope to avoid a similar fate.
“The future is bright,” Brown said postgame. “I always look at adversity as opportunities to shape an individual. For whatever reason, it wasn’t our time. …
“For me, it’s always about growth. Continuing to get better, continuing to find different ways to lead. That’s what it’s about. The future is bright.”
How Boston should approach the summer
THE CELTICS ENTER the offseason on a different timeline from each of those three prior teams in their situation. The 1986 Rockets’ chances of remaining a contender fell off once Sampson began suffering knee and back injuries the next season — he went from playing 243 games through his first three NBA seasons to a total of 213 over the rest of his nine-year career.
The 1995 Magic and 2012 Thunder, meanwhile, fell victim to many small markets’ yearly battle against the pull of free agency. After losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the East finals in 1996, O’Neal left Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Thunder traded James Harden before the start of the 2012-13 season and lost Durant to the Warriors in the summer of 2016.
Boston, on the other hand, is set up for long-term success.
The Celtics’ top eight players are all signed through at least next season. Al Horford, 36, is their only key player whose rights they don’t control past next season and is the only one older than 27. Tatum, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III are all signed through 2025-26. Derrick White, Daniel Theis and Payton Pritchard have deals that take them through 2024-25, and Jaylen Brown’s extension runs through 2023-24.
The Celtics also have a new coach in Udoka and new president of basketball operations in Brad Stevens, both of whom appear set in their roles.
That has caused Boston, even when falling to Golden State, to view the end of 2021-22 as a springboard rather than a roadblock.
“There is a big-picture approach, as well, a core group that we want to build with going forward and understanding how to guard every situation,” Udoka said before the Celtics’ Game 2 loss.
“[I’ve] dealt with this in years past in the Finals or in the playoffs in general, kind of finding that balance of when to stick with it if something is not working but also look at the big picture and how well we’ve done throughout the season, adapting to different teams [and] different schemes.”
Udoka held to that belief early in the season when Boston was repeatedly scuffling, and maintained it as the Celtics turned things around beginning in late January, when the schemes Udoka wanted the players to run — plus some under-the-radar trades — helped turn Boston into a near-unstoppable juggernaut.
“Nobody even had us being here, let alone in the playoffs,” Smart said after Boston’s Game 6 loss. “We’ve been through hell to get here, and you take that. You know what I’m saying? We got to use that.”
Boston finished the regular season 28-7 while posting the league’s best offensive and defensive ratings during that span. Factor in a run to the Finals that featured two Game 7 wins, and Boston has the talent and experience to be a championship contender for years.
“When I think of who are likely to be the [East] teams who are running it back next year,” said an East scout, “I feel as good or better about them as I do anyone.”
THE FINALS WERE rough for Boston’s franchise cornerstone. Golden State threw a variety of defenses at Tatum as the series progressed, and he struggled to adjust, shooting 36.7% from the field and 31.6% from 2-point range.
Tatum finished the postseason with 100 turnovers — more than any player in a single playoffs in NBA history. “Learn and understand who he is in this league,” Udoka said of Tatum’s next challenge.
“You’re an All-Star, All-NBA First Team guy for a reason. This is only the start of how you’re going to be guarded and the attention you’re going to draw.”
Meanwhile, the Celtics saw their depth get tested. They were fortunate to make it through the playoffs without any lasting injuries, although they did see Smart and Robert Williams rotate in and out with ailments.
But against Golden State, the team’s reserve unit of White, Grant Williams and Pritchard was largely outclassed, including going a combined 2-for-10 from the field for five points in Game 6. While Boston’s top eight is viewed as elite leaguewide, the back end of its roster is lacking.
“They have a lot of scrubs,” an East executive said of Boston’s bench.
“[And] they still need a real point guard. I love Marcus, but he needs another person to help him, and it can’t be [Tatum and Brown] because they dribble too much. They need someone else. If Utah [looks to move] Mike Conley, can you put him in there? Someone like that.”
Tatum and Brown, on the other hand, have made significant strides — but league insiders say that growth needs to continue. After Udoka began this season urging the duo’s playmaking to improve, both took steps forward as facilitators despite struggling with turnovers in the playoffs.
“I think Jaylen is starting to show a better feel for the ball and more unselfishness with the ball,” a Western Conference executive said. “Jayson is showing better decision-making. He’s learning what it takes to be ‘the guy.'”
Now, add the Celtics’ Finals loss to the list of learning experiences in a postseason full of them after eliminating Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Milwaukee Bucks and Jimmy Butler‘s Miami Heat in consecutive series — staring down road closeout games in Milwaukee and Miami and living to tell the tale.
While they fell short of an NBA-record 18th title and remain tied with their rivals in Los Angeles, there’s plenty of optimism in Boston and throughout the league that these Celtics, led by their young and soaring star duo, have the pieces to make a triumphant return to the NBA’s grandest stage.
“That’s the message to the guys tonight: ‘This is just the start,'” Udoka said. “A foundation has been set.”