Buckley: After Celtics lay down in Miami, it may be time to arrange for the wrecking ball

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MIAMI — In December 1982, with his team stumbling along with a 2-14 record, Houston Rockets coach Del Harris summed up the situation thusly: “All the personnel belongs in the NBA. It just doesn’t belong on the same team.”

May we borrow that long-ago observation and apply it to the 2023 Celtics? From coach Joe Mazzulla to star players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to those hopeful souls riding the pine, surely there is a place for every one of these fine people in the NBA. But what we have learned during this disastrous postseason, with the point being delivered in Technicolor Sunday night at Miami’s Kaseya Center, is that to place these guys in the same room, to hand them the same uniforms, to send them out to a basketball court identified as a “team,” is a gross mischaracterization of that word.

Where to begin? The pride-challenged Celtics barely even bothered to show up for Game 3 against the Heat. The final was Miami 128, Boston 102, but that’s only because the Celtics “won” the D-League-like fourth quarter thanks to the Fantastic Four of Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, Luke Kornet and Mike Muscala playing key roles in Boston’s star-spangled 39-35 finish.

Miami must still win one more game to advance to the NBA Finals, of course, but is it too soon to discuss the size and sponsorship of the wrecking ball that will be used on the Celtics once it’s over?

Yes, Mazzulla placed the blame, every bit of it, on himself. “I just didn’t have them ready to play,” he said. “I should have — whatever it was, whether it was the starting lineup or it was an adjustment, I have to get them in a better place ready to play, and that’s on me.”


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If there’s a Pro Joe lobby out there that believes the 32-year-old rookie coach is doing a crackerjack job, it should probably fire its public relations firm. What matters is that Joe Mazzulla doesn’t like the job Joe Mazzulla is doing, and that’s that … except that Al Horford audibly grimaced when his coach’s remarks were repeated for him.

“No,” Horford said. “Coach is saying that? He’s being generous. At the end of the day, that falls on each player. We know what we have to do. We knew the magnitude of this game.”


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But Horford is being generous as well. It’s a nice arrangement: Mazzulla takes all the blame, and then the players take all the blame — Brown called it “embarrassing” — and then everyone gets to go to bed believing they manned up and took some responsibility.

But blame was being assessed all over the world.  The great Magic Johnson, for one, took to Twitter to put the Celtics on blast: “In my 44 years of being associated with the NBA I never thought I’d see a Boston Celtics team, a franchise with 17 Championships, quit. I know Celtics fans all over the world must be disgusted and devastated.”

This is a man who had Steel Cage matches with the Celtics throughout the 1980s. Yet such was his respect for the Celtics that not only did he show up at the old Garden for Larry Bird Night but he also had the joint roaring when he opened up his Lakers warmup jacket to reveal a Celtics T-shirt underneath.

Here now is that man, Magic Johnson, calling the Celtics quitters. Mercy.

Ultimately, though, the only blame assessment that matters will come from ownership and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens. Removing Mazzulla would be as easy as throwing raw meat at hungry lions, but in the long term the Celtics will need to decide if it’s worth the many millions it’ll take to keep this core group together. And by core group, we’re talking about Tatum and Brown, naturally.

For the sake of argument, let’s allow Mazzulla to blame this mess on himself. If so, it begs the obvious next question: If Tatum and Brown truly are elite NBA players, players you hold onto, build around, promote and celebrate, then shouldn’t they be above wilting and quitting just because their young coach might be getting blinded by the postseason lights?

People keep asking questions about some kind of locker room discord. That question was posed directly to Tatum late Sunday night. He was also briefed on the American Bandstand of heavy hitters who are saying the Celtics flat-out quit Sunday night.

“I deleted Twitter from my phone to start the playoffs,” he said. “I honestly haven’t seen anything good, bad or indifferent since Game 1 against the Hawks. I’m certain after every game you win, you’re the best player and the best team, and when you lose, you’re not the star and the team is not good enough.

“I’m certain there will be some of that, but out of sight, out of mind,” he continued. “You don’t see it, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the guys in the locker room, teammates, coaches, and we’re all in this together just trying to figure it out.”

But are they … all in this together? Are they really? The manner in which they conducted their affairs Sunday night, especially in the third quarter when they started to close the gap and then, well, quit, does not have the ring of all-in.

Tatum looked good in the first quarter but wound up scoring 14 points in his 33 1/2 minutes. Brown scored just 12 points in a little under 28 minutes, and his defense was troublingly indifferent at times.

The second biggest question facing management this offseason is determining how much of this postseason collapse is Mazzulla’s fault.

Depending on where management comes down on that, the biggest question, one of the biggest in the history of the franchise, will be if they can afford to invest in a Tatum-Brown future.

If this is the part where you want to counter that it took Paul Pierce 10 seasons to win a championship, that’s because it took that long to assemble a winning team around him.

I was under the impression that led by Tatum and Brown, this year’s Celtics were another of those teams.

(Photo of Jaylen Brown helping up Jayson Tatum: Sam Navarro / USA Today)

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