For Celtics, is it a coach or core problem?


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The Celtics’ season technically isn’t over yet. But no NBA team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a series, and after seeing the way the Celtics rolled over in Game 3 Sunday night in Miami, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be the first.

If this is in fact how the Celtics’ season ends, with a complete capitulation to a less talented but harder-working and better-coached Heat team, it’s a result that cannot be brushed aside. Reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for a fifth time in the last seven years is not a silver lining in this case.

This is a significant step back from last season and a damning indictment of this group. And it’s up to team president Brad Stevens and owner Wyc Grousbeck to figure out why it happened.

Perhaps the biggest question they must answer after this pathetic showing is this: Is it a coach problem or a core problem?

Of course, the reality is that there’s plenty of blame to go around. None of Joe Mazzulla, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart or anyone else should escape criticism. But for Stevens and Grousbeck, it’s about deciding which problems are so big that they require change.

The easiest option, as it is in all sports, is to change the coach. Mazzulla certainly hasn’t done himself any favors this postseason. Erik Spoelstra has coached circles around him in this series. Mazzulla has been too slow to make adjustments both offensively and defensively when Plan A wasn’t working. Smart himself said last round that Mazzulla was being “rightfully” criticized, a stunning admission that you almost never hear from a player.

Mazzulla, who so often sounds defensive when any of his moves are questioned during postgame press conferences, instead sounded defeated Sunday night. He put all the blame on himself, saying he didn’t have the Celtics ready to play and admitting that there’s a disconnect between himself and the players right now.

Former Celtic and current NBC Sports Boston analyst Eddie House said he believes the Celtics have “quit” on Mazzulla and don’t believe in him.

Something needs to change, and firing Mazzulla would be the easiest move for Stevens and Grousbeck to make, even if they did just sign him to an extension. They can even be nice about it, explaining away that he was simply put in too difficult of a situation, taking over for the suspended and ultimately dismissed Ime Udoka just before the season began.

There is plenty of truth to that. The Celtics’ championship window is now, and they needed a coach who could help push them over the top. Mazzulla, meanwhile, needed time to learn and grow. In the end, the timelines haven’t matched up.

Stevens and Grousbeck might think Mazzulla would be better in Year 2, especially if they rebuild his staff and get him more help. Let’s not forget that the Celtics have lost not just Udoka in the last year, but also Will Hardy to the Jazz last summer and Damon Stoudamire to Georgia Tech midseason this year. But if Stevens and Grousbeck still believe in this team’s core and still believe their championship window is open, then it’s hard to imagine them betting on Mazzulla for another year.

And that brings us to the second part of the equation, and the one that could require even tougher decisions for Stevens and Grousbeck. Do the Celtics’ problems run deeper than coaching? Is there a fatal flaw in this team’s core of players?

At the very least, it’s clearly a group that requires great coaching. They needed Udoka’s tough love to finally play as a team last year and get over the conference finals hump. Mazzulla hasn’t been able to get the same level of commitment out of them, with the massive drop-off in their defensive effort the most glaring evidence of that.

But it’s fair to wonder why this group still needs a coach to hold their hand. The NBA is supposed to be a players’ league. Generally, teams that win championships do so because their best players set the tone, not the coach.

Tatum and Brown have wilted in this series. Tatum has made zero fourth-quarter field goals through three games. That continued on Sunday because the game was so out of hand after three quarters that Tatum didn’t even play in the fourth. Brown is shooting 37.7% from the field and just 10% from three in the series. He has taken just four free throws and missed two of them. The pair have combined for nearly eight turnovers per game, with their carelessness with the ball proving problematic for a second straight postseason.

Changing up the supporting cast around Tatum and Brown is another relatively easy shakeup Stevens can make. It looked all season like the Celtics had a very good supporting cast this year, but it is fair to say that theirs has been outplayed by the Heat’s in this series.

Still, teams go as their stars go, and right now the Celtics’ stars are not going. Is that because they’ve just gone cold at the worst possible time? Or is there still a larger issue with the way Tatum and Brown fit together?

We know Brown’s name has popped up in numerous trade rumors over the years, including as recently as this season when Kevin Durant was on the block. In multiple interviews in the second half of the season, Brown sounded like someone who was not committed to Boston long-term.

This offseason could be put-up-or-shut-up time. The Celtics can offer Brown a five-year, $295 million supermax extension this summer. They either make that commitment to him, or they trade him once and for all. Obviously, that decision could be dependent on what Brown wants. It is hard to envision him leaving so much money on the table – no other team can offer him a supermax – but if he isn’t happy here, he may decide he wants out anyways.

Some, including Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe, got the sense that Brown was holding back Sunday night, that there’s something he wants to say but can’t right now.

Washburn followed up by saying that the dysfunction with this team has been “building for months.”

Figuring out how to fix that dysfunction will be the No. 1 priority for Stevens and Grousbeck. Maybe changing the coach and a couple role players would be enough. But after this total no-show against Miami, it feels like anything and everything should be on the table.

Featured Image Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports