Celtics will do ‘soul searching’ this offseason after alarming patterns led to playoff exit

Tribune Content Agency

The end of each of the last two Celtics seasons saw a celebration and trophy presentation on the TD Garden parquet. But the C’s weren’t present for either of them.

Instead, the Celtics were back in their locker room, packing up for the summer while the Warriors celebrated a championship and then, a year later, the Heat stood on a podium at Boston’s mid-court after advancing to the NBA Finals on Monday night.

Both instances were a stark reminder of the Celtics’ surprising failures at home, a troubling trend that has haunted them over the last two postseasons. Once hallowed ground, the Garden has become a house of horrors for the Celtics. Over their last two playoff springs, the C’s had a combined 11-12 record in Boston. That’s the most home playoff losses in a two-year span in NBA history.

That’s simply unforgivable, especially for a championship contender.

“This is difficult because this building for so many years has been so special,” Al Horford said after Monday night’s loss. “It’s very disappointing losing these games here. We talked about it as a group, about ways to coming out and having that edge at home and being great and getting the crowd to rally behind us.”

But as much as they talked about it, it hasn’t quite clicked for this group at the Garden.

Their most puzzling losses of the playoffs came at home. They dropped a potentially clinching Game 5 to the Hawks – who were without star guard Dejounte Murray – in the first round after blowing a double-digit fourth-quarter lead. They lost Game 1 to the 76ers when they didn’t have MVP Joel Embiid, then Game 5 of that series in an environment that resembled a January game against the Hornets.

The theme continued into the Eastern Conference Finals, where they dropped the first two games to the eighth-seeded Heat after holding double-digit leads in both. Then, when they stormed back from an 0-3 series deficit to force Game 7, they produced one of their worst performances of the season. Jayson Tatum sprained his ankle on the first play of the game, and with Malcolm Brogdon hobbled with an arm injury and Robert Williams reportedly throwing up during the game, it was too much to overcome. Losing the first two at home gave them no margin for error.

“I feel like for whatever reason we always felt coming back here, it was kind of our safe haven, that we were going to be fine,” Horford said. “I’m not going to say that that’s … but I definitely think that for whatever reason we just kind of let loose a little bit at times here at home, just thinking that we’ll be fine and we’ll kind of find our way.

“That’s something that we’ll have to look at and make sure that we shift that mindset of protecting home, kind of being more aggressive, being more … because on the road I feel like there’s that edge that we have. We have to be consistent in that. That’s something that we have to be better at.”

The Celtics’ home woes spoke to a season-long pattern in which they inexplicably let go of the rope, and consistently dropped games they should have won.

Fresh off their loss in the NBA Finals, the Celtics were motivated and fueled by that experience, at least to start the season. They erupted to a 21-5 start and were head and shoulders above the NBA as the clear-cut championship favorites, but maybe they had a false sense of security from that.

As defending Eastern Conference champions, they knew they were always going to get opponents’ best shots, but they failed to stay consistent, especially on the defensive end. They would look invincible on some nights, then lose focus and intensity and look like a completely different team the next. They couldn’t regularly give a full 48-minute effort. They lacked the attention required to win a championship.

“We addressed a lot of those things and right now I don’t have the answer for you,” Horford said. “We addressed a lot of them, especially after the Philly series and even the Atlanta series. We were like, ‘Hey, we have to be better, we have to do these things.’ And it’s something that continues to happen. It’s a pattern that happens with us. We’re going to have to do some soul searching there because some things have to change in that regard. We had a great opportunity, and we failed. That definitely has something to do with it.”