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It may not be the most devastating loss in Boston Celtics history, but it was a complete meltdown when the Celtics had plenty of incentive to win.

Looking to wrap up their first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, the Celtics had plenty to play for. A win gets them a few days of rest before taking on the Philadelphia 76ers and an injured Joel Embiid. A victory also saves them another trip to Atlanta, where a loss sets up an anything-can-happen Game 7 this weekend. To be blunt, Boston blew it Tuesday. They choked in a 119-117 loss, and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Three should be held accountable for the Boston Celtics letting this one get away

Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics reacts to a call against the Atlanta Hawks during the fourth quarter in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at TD Garden on April 25, 2023, in Boston, Massachusetts. | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images.

You win as a team, and you lose as a team, right? No. Not when you have players making foolish plays or being careless with the ball, especially in crunch time. Three members of the Boston Celtics should have an extra finger pointed at them for letting victory slip away.

Marcus Smart was anything but smart down the stretch. Smart brings plenty of energy to the team, but he tried desperately to play hero ball in the final seconds, and it hurt them. Leading by one in the final 20 seconds, Smart dove and tried to steal the ball from Atlanta’s Trae Young, fouling him in the process. Young hit two free throws to give the Hawks the lead.

This came after Atlanta’s Onyeka Okongwu was called for a personal foul after a hard screen on Smart. Instead of capitalizing on the possession, Smart returned the favor with a pay-back hard screen of his own down the other end of the court, giving the ball back to the Hawks.

Jayson Tatum also deserves his share of the blame. The supposed leader of the team plays like anything but one, especially come playoff time. Tatum is careless with the ball, struggles to finish at the rim, and gets paid by the complaint. Not to mention, he shot 1-for-10 from three-point land.

Tatum, hit with an unnecessary technical foul after slapping the ball away from the referee late in the game, is an extremely talented player. He’s expanded his game this year by driving to the basket more, opening the way to more free-throw attempts. He just struggles when trying to finish those drives to the hoop. Tatum’s always looking for the foul and spends more time complaining about non-calls than he does getting back on defense.

Joe Mazzulla deserves plenty of blame as well

While Smart and Tatum struggled on the floor, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla struggled from the bench. His rotations are baffling, and he is the leader of a team whose biggest problem is complacency.

First, although Smart is the veteran leader, why is he out on the court in crunch time? He’s a great defensive player, but there are three guards on the team who are better all around. Malcom Brogdon, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, is a much better option down the stretch, along with Derrick White and Jaylen Brown.

Why is Grant Williams not playing? Williams came up huge during last year’s postseason, especially during a grueling seven-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks. He didn’t see the court Tuesday night. Is Mazzulla being stubborn with Williams? Is he sending a message? The message is the Celtics could use Williams.

The Celtics are at their worst after they’ve been at their best. If they have a big lead, whether it’s in a game or in a series, they lose interest. They become complacent. That’s on Mazzulla to make sure it doesn’t happen.

It’s one game. The Celtics are the better team. They are as deep as any team in the league, if Mazzulla uses his bench properly. They just don’t have the killer instinct or someone who can take charge down the stretch, and that will be what ultimately costs them if they fail to bring home Banner No. 18.


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