The Boston Celtics came into these NBA playoffs with grandiose dreams. Having earned a No. 1 seed for the first time in nine years, they expected to make a deep run, potentially even challenging LeBron James, their old nemesis, in the Eastern Conference finals.
Instead, through two games of their best-of-seven, first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, the Celtics look like a paper tiger, incapable of advancing.
Chicago, which barely made the playoffs and was in turmoil for much of the season, pounded Boston 111-97 on Tuesday night at TD Garden. Now the series shifts to Chicago for Game 3 on Friday night.
As the trade deadline came and went in February, Boston’s competition at the top of the Eastern Conference all made moves to improve.
The Toronto Raptors traded for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, adding toughness, defensive versatility and depth. The Washington Wizards traded for Bojan Bogdanovic and signed Brandon Jennings for a bench that was lacking. The Cleveland Cavaliers snagged Deron Williams.
Boston stood pat. It watched DeMarcus Cousins get traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for what was roundly considered a below-market offer but didn’t make a move for him. The Celtics dabbled in talks with the Indiana Pacers for Paul George and, ironically, the Bulls for Jimmy Butler, but opted not to deal.
The Celtics weren’t limited to shopping at the top of the market. They could have gotten Ibaka or Taj Gibson, two forwards that would have been massive upgrades on Amir Johnson and helped solve Boston’s rebounding issues. They didn’t pay to get a player such as Lou Williams, a proven bench scorer who would help Boston survive when Isaiah Thomas isn’t on the floor.
No, the Celtics chose to be content with having two of Brooklyn’s upcoming first-round picks – including a guaranteed top-four pick in this year’s draft – as well as picks from the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers in 2019, a combined total of five first-rounders over the next three seasons along with plenty of cap space to chase more help this summer.
Not moving any of their picks or young players at the deadline was a reasonable decision, and at the time a defensible one. But Thomas himself said after the deadline he expected his front office to improve the team.
“I don’t know what they’re doing but I trust them,” Thomas said. “I thought we would make a move, be it a big one or a small one. But when we didn’t I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t upset at all. I know what’s at stake. I know we have a lot of things we can move around and things like that, but I wasn’t really paying too much attention to it.
“That’s their job and I know they’re really good at it.”
Boston either believed its roster was better than it was or accepted that a move wasn’t going to make enough of a difference.
Whatever the reason, it’s become clear that the current makeup isn’t good enough to make any kind of impact in the Eastern Conference, let alone be a legitimate challenger to represent the East in the finals.
Boston lacks a second scorer behind Thomas, a problem that reared its head in both Games 1 and 2. Thomas, playing through the devastating loss of his sister, Chyna, in a tragic car accident over the weekend, was terrific in Game 1, scoring 33 points, but scored only 20 in Game 2. No other Celtic scored 20 points in either of the first two games.
Meanwhile the Celtics have turned Bulls center Robin Lopez into the second coming of Wilt Chamberlain; Lopez has 13 offensive rebounds through the first two games.
Boston has struggled to control the boards all season, and it’s one reason it may go home for the summer earlier than anyone expected.
If Boston gets some lottery luck, would Thomas be placed on the trading block with a year to go before free agency and the prospect of a contract of nearly $200 million? Will the Celtics re-sign Kelly Olynyk or extend Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley? Will there be a pivot to a youth movement, or a pushing of the chips in for the kind of game-changing talent this series has proven the Celtics don’t have at their disposal?
CELTICS GUARD Isaiah Thomas said the days since his younger sister was killed in a car crash have been the hardest of his life. He also expressed thanks for the support he received around the NBA.
Thomas’ comments, released in a team statement, were his first public ones since 22-year-old Chyna Thomas died in a crash early Saturday outside of Tacoma, Washington. Thomas said the pain he’s feeling “is impossible to put into words,” though he expressed gratitude to his fans, the city of Boston, the Celtics’ organization and the NBA community.
MARCUS SMART of the Celtics was fined $25,000 by the NBA for making an obscene gesture in the Game 2 loss to Chicago.
The league didn’t release video of the incident in announcing the fine, but TNT’s cameras appeared to show Smart giving someone the gesture after missing a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter Tuesday night.
GRIZZLIES: The NBA fined Coach David Fizdale $30,000 for a rant against the officials after a 96-82 loss to San Antonio in Game 2 of their series.
Fizdale blasted the officiating in a nearly two-minute tirade during his postgame interview Monday night, calling the work of veteran crew Danny Crawford, Rodney Mott and Bill Spooner “unprofessional” and “unacceptable” before slamming his fist on a table and storming off.
WIZARDS 109, HAWKS 101: In a rough-and-tumble, foul-filled game, Bradley Beal took over in the fourth quarter with 16 of his 31 points, including a key late 3-pointer, helping Washington win at home for a 2-0 lead in an Eastern Conference first-round series.
John Wall finished with 32 points and nine assists, including the dish to Beal for his shot from beyond the arc with 38 seconds remaining that sealed it.
ROCKETS 115, THUNDER 111: James Harden scored 35 points and Houston, at home, overcame 51 points from Russell Westbrook in a triple-double, clawing back from a double-digit deficit to take a 2-0 lead in the first-round Western Conference series.