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Boston risks being one of those really good NBA teams that have a long playoff streak without ever getting their hands on the trophy.
The Celtics have some bona fide stars still getting better as they enter career peaks in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but the famed franchise is one loss away from a ninth straight playoff series with no silverware to show.
They did well to fight back after being down 3-0 to force Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat with a win at Miami and then Friday’s 110-97 triumph.
However, the odds are still high that the Celtics will become the first team to win a series after losing the first three games – given that 150 teams have tried and all failed.
Hope is eternal in Beantown, but it seems too little, too late as they head back to Florida for Sunday’s next clash.
Tatum and Brown are deserving All-Stars and All-NBA selections who are only just entering their prime at 25 and 26 respectively.
Brown’s nomination to the All-NBA Second Team means he is eligible for a five-year deal worth $295 million.
Tatum has to wait another year for his extension, but it will be north of $300 million.
The Celtics have little to no choice – both players must be re-signed and the remote possibility of trading one of them should only be considered as a last resort.
Unless they can somehow defy history to defeat Miami and then kill the post-season juggernaut the Denver Nuggets in the Finals, the Celtics have to ask some tough questions about the rest of their roster and off-season coaching status.
Rookie coach Joe Mazzulla is younger than some of his players and has done a solid job for Boston since being thrust into the role on the eve of the season when news of the off-court misconduct by Ime Udoka burst.
Udoka, who took the Celtics to the Finals during his rookie campaign last year, deserved to be dismissed for the season for his inappropriate relationship with a female staff member.
Mazzulla had the interim tag stripped and was promoted to permanent coach (if there is such a thing in the NBA) in February when Boston was atop the Eastern standings.
But since then they’ve lost the top seed to Milwaukee and after unconvincing 4-2 series wins over Atlanta and New York, they’ve looked rudderless at times in their first three meetings with the Heat.
Mazzulla was blamed and it was reported that some players wanted Udoka reinstated, but he has since signed with Houston.
Coaches, like players, make rookie mistakes when finding their feet in the NBA.
Mazzulla will be better for experience, but the problem for Boston is that they can’t afford to lose another playoff run.
They weren’t legitimate title contenders in some of the previous eight seasons, but this is shaping up to be the sixth time in that span that they’ve finished in their conference’s top four without going all the way. .
Their nine-year run is the longest active streak among any franchise.
It’s starting to look like shades of Utah circa the John Stockton and Karl Malone era.
The Jazz made the playoffs for 20 straight years through 2003, largely thanks to their Hall of Fame point guard and equally legendary power forward.
But they never quite nailed the third star that could take them over the bump. Mark Eaton was a sniper shot blocker and Jeff Hornacek was a solid backcourt mate for Stockton, but even when they weren’t canceled on the final hurdle by Michael Jordan’s Bulls, they ended up becoming the best team in the NBA.
Boston measures success only in franchises, not conference titles or divisional banners, and is looking for its 18th to put them back in first place all-time ahead of the Lakers.
For the Celtics to avoid a Jazz-like fate with their current crop, they’ll likely have to move on from Marcus Smart.
Their general on the field is a tough defender, a decent passer and their vocal leader, but too often he dominates the stretch when the ball should go to Brown or Tatum.
They have a ready-made replacement in sixth man of the year on the bench, Malcolm Brogdon, so if they trade Smart, they don’t necessarily have to bring in another starting point guard.
He is probably their best business asset. Al Horford will turn 37 before the start of next season and takes just $10 million in cap room while Robert Williams, Derrick White and Grant Williams are all useful players but unlikely to fetch much in a trade.
The Celtics don’t even have their own first-round pick in this year’s draft to trade because they owe it to the Pacers from the Brogdon deal, but they could drop a few on the trail to potentially offer a package. which will yield the third star that Tatum and Brown desperately need.
There’s still a silver lining that they can salvage this season, but if they become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 deficit, then Lucky the Leprechaun could very well have true magical powers.