The Boston Celtics were knocking on the door to winning a title for a long time.
Their young group led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had been to the conference finals time and time again and could not seem to break through. They have been to three conference finals since 2017, cycling through Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving before handing the keys to their young stars.
In many ways, Boston was still living down the disappointment of falling short in the bubble during the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals. And then a first-round exit created a path to change throughout the franchise.
But here was their breakthrough.
A new coach brought a new strategy that, after some rough beginnings and a need to buy in, finally got the Celtics over the hump and into the Finals.
They finally fulfilled that part of their seeming destiny. Only then to get another hard lesson.
The Boston Celtics built the model for the perfect switching defense of the modern era. But their lack of precision in the Finals cost them their ticket to a title.
That is the nature of growth and development at the top of the NBA. Rarely is destiny ever fulfilled and it is never done in a straight line.
The Celtics seemingly had a perfect defensive strategy to get themselves to the title, their incredibly switchy defense stymied the league and they could throw enough curveballs with ace defenders throughout their roster.
Just when they got to the big stage, they lost their precision. They showed their youth.
It was something clear in the series win over the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals — where the Boston Celtics averaged 14.6 turnovers per game — and even in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors — where the Celtics averaged 16.2 turnovers per game.
Boston embraced a clear identity and played it all the way to the Finals. But on the biggest stage against a team that was equally sure of itself and what it took to win, the Celtics’ lack of precision became their undoing.
Much has been made in the weeks since the Finals ended of Jayson Tatum’s playoff-high 100 total turnovers in the NBA Playoffs. That surely cannot be all on him, but it is emblematic of the Celtics’ problems as they got deeper into the playoffs.
No one can deny the Celtics’ talent or how they bought into Ime Udoka’s schemes, especially after early-season struggles that topped off with Marcus Smart calling out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s penchant for isolation play before the team rolled into Orlando for a 92-79 win in November. The Celtics are not going anywhere considering their relative age, experience in big games and continued growth with their new coach.
But there is undoubtedly some seasoning and adjusting the Celtics will have to make. They have to learn from their defeat and make some changes. Most of all with their stars like Tatum and Brown who deserved that criticism Smart levied at them in November and still struggled to break free from habits.
Boston is a team that still has learning to do and should improve from the experience of finally breaking through to the Finals, even if the team still fell short.
The Celtics though have a lot to celebrate and build upon. Especially with their defense, which will surely find copies throughout the league.
Boston played most of the season with strong, switchable defenders at every position. Boston switched more than any team in the league and seamlessly bottled up teams 1 through 5.
The Celtics finished the season with the top defense in the league, giving up 106.2 points per 100 possessions. They had the second-best defense in the playoffs at 106.3 points per 100 possessions.
Except for certain matchups — most notable in Game 6 of the Finals with Stephen Curry — Al Horford and Robert Williams were able to switch any screen and guard on the perimeter, closing off the paint and forcing tough jumpers while gumming up offenses. Even a guard like Marcus Smart was a tough defender on the block, negating any size disadvantage he might have.
On top of that, the Celtics were fantastic at communicating on the weakside. Mismatches did not stay mismatches for long and their switching simply bottled up any on-ball screening actions, requiring teams to rely on slips to try to throw teams off.
The Magic struggled a ton against this kind of defense all season — the Celtics and Heat switched the most in the entire league. They simply did not have the one-on-one attackers to isolate and take advantage of mismatches switching created nor the advanced offensive playbook or reads to break those defenses.
That is something the Magic certainly hope they can teach in Franz Wagner and take advantage of in a bigger point guard like Markelle Fultz. It is certainly part of what they were looking to exploit in drafting Paolo Banchero number one and leaning in on his physical advantages over seemingly every position — the ability to beat bigger players off the dribble and the ability to take smaller players on the block.
It is hard not to imagine the Magic building a defensive identity similar to the one the Celtics had last year. They have a clear focus on their defense right now, ranking 19th overall in the league and ninth in the final quarter of the season.
It is easy to see the Magic looking to use Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner — along with Jonathan Isaac — as interchangeable wings on any player in the lineup. Wendell Carter has started to become optimized as a do-everything big on the defensive end, especially with size behind him.
Orlando has long valued versatility on that end. That is constantly what the league is calling for on both ends of the floor. This is a copycat league and Boston’s success in reaching the Finals and using that heavy switching scheme is something the league will take notice of — as should the fact the two Finals teams were the top two defensive teams in the league.
But what should also become clear is that as good and as talented as Boston is, that is only the start. It is only something that can get them to the door.
As is so often the case in deep playoff series, it is the little things that separate the winners from the losers. It is precision in execution. It is knowing when to break away from tendencies and press advantages.
The Warriors are an improvisational offense with its cuts and screens and rescreens with a transcendent player in Stephen Curry. They needed some time for sure, but they broke the Celtics’ defense enough and relied on their own to win.
Boston fell back into its bad habit of relying on solo play and not moving the ball to break the defense. The team suffered from turnovers at the worst time and the Warriors made them pay for all of these missteps.
Boston had their identity down and used their size in the exact way a team like the Magic may try to copy. But it takes more than those structures and baselines to win. It takes a lot more.