Biggest 180s: Celtics go from projected conference favorites to early playoff exit

Sam Cohn
June 17, 2019 - 2:27 pm
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Coming into the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Boston Celtics were the favorites to win the East in the post-LeBron James era with a deep rotation and well-respected head coach. So how did they fall so far short of those expectations?

Just one year ago, two detrimental injuries to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward forced their young talent to step up in a major way during the 2018 NBA playoffs. Terry Rozier became "Scary Terry," Jaylen Brown a dominant wing presence, and rookie sensation Jayson Tatum a force to be reckoned with. The '17-'18 Celtics were a group of guys who knew they had to step up to the challenge of losing their star players and find ways to grind out wins. 

Just one year later, those same guys that held the 2-seed and took LeBron to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals had to take a step back and adjust to the style of Irving, who thrives playing 1-on-1 basketball in a slowed, halfcourt set rather than their go-to pace and space, fly up the floor style. Too many games showed Boston poorly spacing the floor and playing frustrated, lackadaisical defense.

“Right now it’s not good. It’s toxic. I can’t really point out one thing. I don’t have all the answers,” Brown told the Boston Globe back in March.

Perhaps no game was more telling of the weaknesses of the team than Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. With the Celtics facing elimination, they gave up way too many offensive rebounds, they took a lot of contested shots early in the shot clock, and they made more than a few questionable decisions on defense resulting from a lack of good communication. All mistakes preventable by stronger team chemistry. 

In a league that values “what have you done for me lately,” the Celtics were in constant shambles looking for the next guy producing and how. Rozier was adamant in his exit interview about how many adjustments the team had to make to fit to Irving rather than him fitting in with the team. The narrative all season was a team that had a lot of talent and would eventually figure out how to play together for 48 minutes. Spoiler alert, it never really happened. Boston swept a Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers before their inevitable demise through five games to Milwaukee in the second round.

It was a 180-degree turnaround from the young, promising and exciting team from the year before, to a lethal rotation on paper putting up less-than-stellar numbers on the hardwood. The '18-'19 season is one we'll look back on as a year-long underachievement.

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