A storybook ending is within reach for the Celtics, but one hurdle remains (2024)

BOSTON — When the Boston Celtics’ first shot at clinching a championship ended with their worst defeat of the season, Joe Mazzulla said little publicly and opted for a lighter touch behind closed doors.

The 35-year-old coach has cultivated a cutthroat persona during his two years on the job; he has shown his team footage of killer whales and combat sports knockouts in hopes of instilling a competitive edge. In the wake of the Dallas Mavericks’ 122-84 victory in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday night, Mazzulla avoided criticizing his players and sought to relieve any growing tension with the Celtics one win from a record 18th title.

“We wanted to go for the kill [in Game 4], and we wanted to win so bad that maybe we got away from what makes us special,” forward Jayson Tatum said at practice Sunday. “I think we maybe put too much pressure on ourselves at that moment to be perfect or think it was going to go how we wanted it to go. Joe did a great job today of reminding us that it’s okay to smile during wars. It’s okay to have fun during high-pressure moments.”

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The Celtics will get a chance at a storybook ending when they host Game 5 at TD Garden on Monday, the 16th anniversary of their title-clinching Game 6 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in 2008. While the franchise’s championship past suggests a coronation is coming, the Celtics may have to overcome their checkered history on the parquet floor in recent postseasons.

First, the good news: Boston’s past three titles — in 1984, 1986 and 2008 — were clinched at home immediately following road losses. In 1984, Larry Bird and company shrugged off a double-digit Game 6 loss to the Lakers to win Game 7. Two years later, the Celtics overcame a 15-point Game 5 loss to the Houston Rockets to win Game 6 going away. In 2008, the Celtics of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett dropped Game 5 in Los Angeles before blowing out the Lakers in Game 6.

Boston won the first two games of these Finals in front of raucous crowds that delighted in booing former Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, but the TD Garden stage has swallowed up the home team many times over the past decade.

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Jaylen Brown’s first playoff run ended with three home losses to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. The next year, Tatum’s first playoff run ended with a Game 7 home loss to the Cavaliers in the same round.

Irving’s Celtics endured a pair of embarrassing home losses to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2019 East semifinals, and Brad Stevens’s final home game as coach was a blowout loss to Brooklyn in the first round of the 2021 playoffs. That night, Irving, who had left for the Nets in 2019, went to center court to stomp on the Celtics’ leprechaun mascot. Clearly, the green jerseys and shamrock logos — and the extreme scrutiny that comes with them — aren’t for everybody.

“What I struggled with initially was figuring out how I’m going to be a great player [in Boston] while winning championships and also leading a team and selflessly joining the Celtics’ organization or the cult that they have here,” Irving said. “That’s what they expect you to do as a player. They expect you to seamlessly buy into the Celtics’ pride and buy into everything Celtics. And if you don’t, then you’ll be outed.”

The 2022 Finals were even more excruciating for the Celtics, who took a 2-1 series lead over the Golden State Warriors before TD Garden devolved into a house of horrors. After Stephen Curry put together a 43-point masterpiece in Game 4 to stun the Celtics fans, the Warriors sealed their title with an emphatic Game 6 win in Boston. To further twist the knife, Curry pointed to his ring finger and put the Celtics’ crowd to bed with his “night night” celebration in the clincher.

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Last year, Tatum scored a playoff career-high 51 points in a Game 7 home victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, but familiar demons reemerged in the East finals. Boston lost Game 1 and Game 2 at home to the Miami Heat, then dug out of a 3-0 series deficit only to take a 103-84 loss in Game 7. Though Tatum suffered a sprained ankle early that night, the Celtics were booed by their own fans throughout their season-ending defeat.

Boston went 5-6 at home during the 2023 playoffs even though it was the higher seed in each round. The expectations of one of the league’s most intense fan bases had created a home-court disadvantage.

“When you drive around and go to the gas station or I wanted to go get some ice cream yesterday, it’s Celtics gear everywhere,” Tatum said. “You really just feel the love and support from everybody in the city of Boston and how bad they want us to win, how much they have been cheering for us. I don’t look at it as pressure — just unconditional support and that we have an amazing fan base here. ... When you come into the NBA, you think every franchise is the same. That couldn’t be any further from the truth.”

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Brown has insisted during the Finals that this year’s Celtics are a different team, one that has learned from its past shortcomings and benefited from the offseason additions of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis. Boston was a league-best 37-4 at home during the regular season and has won eight of its 10 playoff games at TD Garden, with its latest home loss coming May 9 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of the second round.

With one more victory, the Celtics will move past the painful memories of James, Irving, Curry and the Heat for good.

“We are at the precipice of completing what we set out to do at the beginning of the season,” Brown said. “It’s not difficult to get everybody in that locker room on the same page right now. [If] we do it together and we fight like our lives depend on it, I think we’ll be all right.”

A storybook ending is within reach for the Celtics, but one hurdle remains (2024)
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