BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics spent an entire season trying to tell us who they are, and for the most part, we didn't really listen.
After all, what they told us -- that such a talented group of players couldn't play together under Brad Stevens -- just didn't square with reality. Why wouldn't they work? There was the eclectic superstar in Kyrie Irving, who made the biggest shot in another franchise's history, and who decided he wanted to be the No. 1 option on a championship team. There was the rock-solid veteran in Al Horford. There was the recovering star in Gordon Hayward. There were the younger players, still hungry after last season's failures. There were solid role players. There was a coach who had never yet failed to get not only the best, but an unreasonable amount of good out of his team at every turn.
On paper, there was every reason in the world to believe in this team, and to believe 10 games, 20 games, 30 games into the season that a switch would at some point be flipped.
But it never flipped. The Celtics should have been a juggernaut, but instead, Irving chafed at his younger teammates and the difficult leadership task he voluntarily shouldered. Hayward needed 65 games to start looking like himself, and when the playoffs got tough, he still didn't look ready. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum seemed to pass good games back and forth, and they never seemed to share those good games with Terry Rozier. The individual struggles made up a frustrating whole, a group with plenty of talent that simply wasn't that good at playing basketball together.
On Monday, the Celtics took the final step afforded to them before their season crosses the finish line, falling 113-101 to the Milwaukee Bucks. We could talk about the Xs and Os, how Milwaukee's aggressive defense continues to hurt Kyrie Irving, how the Bucks' switching has limited the pick-and-pop damage Al Horford caused in Game 1, how Giannis Antetokounmpo wore them down over the course of the last three games. But that feels like it misses the point. Monday's loss was a microcosm of Boston's entire season: When the going got tough, the Celtics tripped over their own feet and face-planted into concrete.
"I'm sorry to say it," Marcus Morris said in a ghostly quiet locker room after the game, "but our offense is dictating our defense. We miss shots, we're not getting back. I feel like we've been pretty soft."
All season, the Celtics have had moments of brilliance followed by extended stretches of poor play and petulant in-fighting. When they rattled off five consecutive wins to start the postseason, many wondered whether the team had actually gotten its act together and had finally wound into form.
Instead, the last three games have painted a much clearer picture, one we should have seen coming. These aren't the new-and-improved Celtics. They are the same inconsistent, streaky team they have been all season. If we had listened, none of this -- the five-straight wins, the three-straight losses, the second-half meltdowns -- would have been a surprise.
They tried to warn us.
The series technically is not over, so we will save the full eulogy for a more appropriate time (Wednesday sure feels like it might be the day). That full eulogy will need to include everything that could happen this summer, and all of the implications of an earlier-than-expected playoff exit. The draft lottery takes place in a week, which will finally set Boston's trade assets for the summer in stone. The draft itself is about a month later, and if the tea leaves are to be read accurately, that could be the night Anthony Davis is finally moved. Free agency follows a little over a week on its heels. The end of the season is only the beginning of one of the most important stretches in recent Celtics history.
But we can at least say -- assuming this series continues on its current path and the Celtics are eliminated soon -- that this team was one of the most disappointing in recent memory. This might be the first team in the Stevens era to underachieve, and it certainly is the first that has melted like this under pressure.
The individual players aren't soft. Irving hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history. Horford has battled (and beaten) some of the toughest and biggest players in the league. Hayward had to work his way back from a devastating injury. Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris are as real as they come, and Brown, Tatum and Rozier have been through the fire as well.
But in this team's typical fashion, they are somehow so much less than the sum of their parts. A collection of tough, talented players is one game away from bowing out of the playoffs with the slightest of whimpers, and even though we were given every warning that it would probably happen early, the looming end of the 2018-19 Celtics season still somehow feels like a surprise.