It is true that the Celtics are still a young team, but they aren’t too young. Tatum is only 24 and Brown won’t be 26 until the start of next season, but Tatum has now completed five full seasons in the NBA, and Brown has six under his belt.
"They'll get 'em the next time."
"They're still young. There'll be plenty of other opportunities."
"This was a learning experience."
"Now that they know what it takes, there will be no stopping them."
"Wait till next year."
Those, or words just like them, were what was being said about the Boston Celtics in the wake of the 2022 playoffs, which they came so close to winning. Have patience, we were counseled. Our day will come. It's the same advice that was given to Red Sox fans after the 1946 World Series when they lost because of Enos Slaughter's famed mad dash to home and an injury to center fielder Dom DiMaggio. Guess what? Their day never came. Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr, who formed the core of that team, were all still in their 20s. The Red Sox also had elite starting pitching headed by Dave Ferriss (25 and 6 in '46), Tex Hughson (20 and 11), and Mickey Harris (17 and 9), but they all came down with career-altering sore arms in 1947 and were never the same again. The Sox came within a whisker of making it back to the World Series in both 1948 and 1949 but fell just short both years despite having the best hitting team in baseball.
In 1948, the Red Sox finished in a tie with the Cleveland Indians. In a one-game playoff, Boston manager Joe McCarthy chose to start Denny Galehouse, then in the twilight of his career, over rookie sensation Mel Parnell. Galehouse was ineffective and Cleveland won easily, eight to three. In 1949, Boston led the Yankees by one game with only two to go, but lost both games and the pennant in Yankee Stadium.
When Ted Williams returned from Korea (and his second hitch in the military) late in the '53 season, it was too late. The team had been broken up. Doerr had retired because of a bad back, Pesky had been traded, and DiMaggio had quit in disgust when manager Lou Boudreau refused to play him.
Twenty-nine years later, we heard the same old song after the Red Sox almost beat the vaunted Big Red Machine of the Cincinnati Reds in 1975. "They're still young," we were told. "Rice and Lynn are just rookies." "Fisk is still in his 20s, and he's not going anywhere."After losing yet another playoff game for the pennant, this time to the dreaded Yankees in '78, their window of opportunity slammed shut. It was the dawn of the free-agent era and Lynn was traded to California before he jumped ship. The Sox thought Fisk was just bluffing when he told them he had interest from another team and, in one of the greatest blunders of all time, they decided to teach him a lesson by not sending him a contract for 1980. Fisk wasn't bluffing, though, and he signed with the Chicago White Sox, with whom he spent more years than he did in Boston.
Still, another 29 years passed and no one gave the Red Sox any chance at all. They trailed the Yankees (Who else?) three games to none in the 2004 ALCS and were given up for dead. We all know what happened next.
It is true that the Celtics are still a young team, but they aren't too young. Tatum is only 24 and Brown won't be 26 until the start of next season, but Tatum has now completed five full seasons in the NBA, and Brown has six under his belt. Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn were just rookies when they won their first title. (Heinsohn was Rookie of the Year.) Larry Bird was in his second season and Kevin McHale was only a rookie when the Celts won in 1981. Tom Brady was only in his second NFL year when he won it all for the first time in 2001. Bobby Orr was a veteran of four NHL seasons when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970, but he had just turned 22 years old. These should be the glory years of the current Celtics, not sometime off in the future.
They were immensely entertaining to watch this year and they took us right to the doorstep of an NBA championship, but it became obvious that they were missing a key ingredient. They lacked a third option in addition to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to go to during crunch time. Elite defensive teams knew to clamp down on them and when either of them put the ball on the ground and tried to dribble in traffic, it was as likely as not that they would turn the ball over. The Celtics need to protect the ball in those times. Whether that means acquiring a point guard who can create more offense or adding someone like their pogo stick center Robert Williams III to their offensive scheme is up to their basketball brain trust headed by Brad Stevens, but something has to give for them to take that last step to the championship level.
Williams is an intriguing possibility because his ceiling is so high. He is already a difference maker on defense because of his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess. If he could do the same on offense he could be the key ingredient they lack. As it is, the Celtics are good, very good. They've got a chance to be great. Let's hope they can take that one last step to greatness.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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