MILWAUKEE — And just like that, the turbulent Celtics season has come to an end.
After dropping both games at home to trail 3-1 heading into Game 5 of their second-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics did their best to stay within striking distance Wednesday night at the Fiserv Forum. But their poor shooting — 19 for 71 (26.8 percent) through three quarters — stifled them, and the Bucks pulled away late in the third to seal Boston’s wretched fate.
“This game was disappointing,” coach Brad Stevens said. “[The Bucks] were tremendous. Credit them, credit their coaches, credit their players. They’re better than we are.”
For Boston, the disappointment extends beyond just Game 5. A team that was projected to win at least 60 regular-season games and challenge the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Celtics mailed in one discouraging performance after another over the course of this entire year.
The ups and downs, as Stevens noted, were certainly well-chronicled — everything from team meetings to players shoving each other in timeouts to viral postgame comments to collapses against inferior teams. To speak in clichés, every time the Celtics took two steps forward, they seemed to immediately take three steps back.
Stevens was not shy in shouldering much of the blame.
“I’ll be the first to say that this is — as far as any other year that I’ve been a head coach — certainly been the most trying,” he said. “I think I did a bad job. At the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find its best fit together, that’s on you.”
Things are about to get a lot more complicated for the Celtics, who face an offseason full of uncertainties. All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, who shot an abysmal 29.6 percent in Boston’s four losses to the Bucks, is set to hit free agency with no guarantee that he’ll return to the team.
Irving told a crowd of season-ticket holders in October that he planned on re-signing with the Celtics, but as the season’s woes multiplied, so did the skepticism surrounding his plans. The capricious 27-year-old superstar offered no reassurances Wednesday night.
“For me, it’s just moving onto the next thing and seeing where that ends up,” he said.
Asked whether the uncertainty surrounding his future weighed on him, Irving brushed off the question. Asked what type of situation would make for a positive one, he said his current goal is to return to Boston safely, see his family, decompress, and “do what human beings do.”
The Celtics do hold a financial advantage in that they can give Irving a max contract worth five years and $189 million, while other teams can only offer four years and $151 million. How much that actually matters to Irving is unknown.
Whether Irving stays or goes could have major implications on the organization’s moves this summer. The Celtics are obviously still interested in trading for New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis, but doing so without Irving is a bit riskier when Davis just has one year left on his contract. Giving up young talent like Jayson Tatum only for Davis to walk at the end of next season is not exactly an outcome conducive to sustained success.
Irving isn’t the only player whose status is in flux. Coming off the best season of his eight-year career, forward Marcus Morris is set to become an unrestricted free agent; backup point guard Terry Rozier is set to become a restricted free agent, meaning the Celtics can match any offer sheet he receives from another team; and veteran forward Al Horford can opt out for the final season of his four-year max deal.
Horford affirmed he would like to come back — he could still opt out so that the Celtics can restructure his deal into something long-term — while Morris also expressed an interest in returning.
“Obviously, I love being here in Boston,” Morris said. “I’ve enjoyed it a lot and, hopefully, I stay here. It’s a great organization, nothing but great for me being able to play on that stage. I’ve enjoyed my time.”
Rozier, on the other hand, does not appear to feel similarly. After stepping up as starting point guard when Irving was injured during last year’s postseason run, the 25-year-old was relegated to his reserve role this season — and the transition proved to be challenging. To Rozier’s credit, he usually said the right things and, for the most part, kept his gripes to himself.
Nevertheless, his value likely took a hit compared to that of Scary Terry last season.
“I thank God for my family and my boys back at the crib,” Rozier said. “They kept me level-headed all year because I’ve been dealing with some bulls***.”
He had “no comment” when asked about Boston’s ability to match other offer sheets.
Due to the Celtics’ early exit, there are over seven weeks between the end of their season and the official start of free agency on July 1. But rumors will undoubtedly be buzzing well before then — and will likely pick up following the NBA Draft lottery on May 14.
This year, Boston could have as many as four first-round draft picks: the Memphis Grizzlies’ (top-8 protected), Sacramento Kings’ (top-1 protected), Los Angeles Clippers’, and their own. What the team plans to do with those selections is contingent on a number of factors, namely the pursuit of Davis.
Stevens said he doesn’t really think about possible changes to the roster until the season is over. It was obvious he felt for the younger players, who are often subject to having their names thrown around in scuttlebutt.
“The other thing I told the team is all this stuff we’ve been through, they’ll all be better because of it,” Stevens said. “It didn’t show itself on this stage by any means, but they’ll all be better because of it because we learned a lot.”
Whether Stevens has started to think about them or not, departures are already in the works.
Assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry has reportedly accepted an assistant coaching position on the Purdue men’s basketball staff. Shrewsberry, who also worked with Stevens at Butler, works one-on-one with both Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
That loss alone is certainly a big one. And more are soon to come, with the magnitude of each varying. But one thing’s for certain: This team is going to look quite different come October.