Monday night’s loss to the Denver Nuggets, following a last second heartbreaking loss to the Pacers on Saturday night, swept in a new round of discontent in Celtics Nation. The fact that I can type out that sentence with minimum hyperbole just goes to show how good things have been for Celtics fans over the past year and a half. The Celtics suffered close road losses against the 3rd and 7th best teams in the NBA less than a week after knocking off the only undefeated team remaining in the NBA. That’s a good week for most teams that aren’t the Warriors and you don’t have to go far to find Celtics fans pulling their hair out about it.
The reason for that is that there are expectations of this team to compete for a championship. That means kicking the doors off other top teams when you stroll in their buildings and handling business at home. That’s what the Warriors do, and they do it in the Western Conference. If one hopes to get in the ring with the team version of The Mountain that Rides, you need the ruthless efficiency to dispatch them when they are down, not dance around until they crush your head in. The Celtics need to have that killing instinct sharp for the playoffs if they hope to win games at Oracle.
In the larger scale of things, the Celtics are fine. The regular season has a recent history of questionable impact in the NBA at large, with LeBron’s Cleveland teams skating through, the #4 seed 2010 Celtics coming within a Perkins injury of the title, or even last year’s Celtics entering the post-season with the miasma of despair hanging over them only to come within a few points of The Finals. There’s always going to be a reasonable case that as long as the Celtics make it to the playoffs healthy, seeding is largely a secondary concern.
Even with the Celtics troubles, they find themselves firmly at the top to the Eastern Conference’s upper middle class, 4th in the standings and 5th in win percentage. This has largely come against a strong schedule where only the Knicks and Magic (depending on how you feel about the Pistons) have been truly bad teams on Gang Green’s schedule. That said, this isn’t how a championship contender handles things. This is a great start if you are the post-LeBron James Heat or the Washington Wizards, but this is a Celtics team that wants to win an Eastern Conference arms race.
The Raptors handily dealt with the Jazz last night in Utah sans Kawhi Leonard and are already up on the Celtics in the standings and the tiebreaker. The slow start hasn’t ruined the Celtics season, but it’s making things tough for a playoff team that might not have the breathing room we thought they would coming into the year. Most times, when a team under performs to expectations, it’s like a fire or an accident, an immediate emergency that needs addressing. This Celtics team is in no danger of combusting as spectacularly as that, but they are more akin to something like a failed bridge inspection.
Nothing too bad has really happened yet and it can be fixed, but it’s still alarming and possibly disastrous if it doesn’t get addressed.
I bring all this up because the Mile High game the Celtics played last night is a perfect microcosm of the “hope versus despair” battle every Celtics fan is waging against their own psyche right now. Denver is a young team on the rise. Geography has afforded them a unique home field advantage and they are currently 3rd in the NBA in net rating trailing only the previously undefeated Bucks and the Warriors. There’s plenty of ways to explain this game away and move on to the next game because, in a vacuum, it’s really not a big deal. Good teams beat good teams.
However, context is everything, and all of the context of this game is largely coordinated in troubling patterns. The Celtics had a monstrous 18 point lead over the Nuggets in the first quarter and it was all but gone after the second. The Celtics had Denver doubled up 32-16 when Semi Ojeleye entered the game with 1:35 left in the first quarter to make it a pure bench lineup with Baynes, Morris, Smart and Rozier. When Stevens took a full timeout to band aid back in the starters at 10:18 remaining in the second, the lead had shrunk to 8. While the Celtics bench is filled with above average and starting caliber players, many of them have difficulty creating a look for others without the assistance of at least on starter.
Here’s a play that happens right before the Celtics go to their full bench lineups. In two man action on the side, Baynes pins Brown’s man on a hand off and Jaylen is able to cut into the paint and collapse the defense. He makes the right read to Smart who touch passes to Rozier for big corner three. Exactly the offense you want.
Here we have a similar type of action, albeit with a spacing man in the strong side corner, for Smart. He stops behind the screen and massages the action back to the middle. Successfully getting the switch onto Plumlee he was looking for. Here, Smart has the full attention of the Nuggets defense, but in spite of that, still tries to find Baynes on the lob. This ends up being a turnover as everyone slides to help.
This is good initiation by Smart, but the instead of working the attention Baynes has commanded for the rest of the shot clock, he goes for the home run play. When it’s all bench players, opposing schemes can scheme more vanilla like this. If the Celtics bench wants to be considered one of the top in the NBA, they need to use their playmaking and talent to handle things more like starters. That means using all the shot clock and making reads that gives the offense time to attack a defense on its heels.
Some of the blame here can be laid at the feet of Stevens for neglecting to use a stagger pattern for his rotation and leaving one or two starters on the court, but it’s also hard to fault him for not expecting a -18 performance from Marcus Morris after he had been the Celtics hottest player coming into the night. Likewise, an inability to get a scalding-hot Kyrie Irving the ball down the stretch seems like the kind of mistake that won’t be made in the playoffs, but was still made here.
The fact that Celtics played so well at the start of the game is equal parts terrifying and comforting. Which do you place more stock in as a Celtics fan? The Celtics showing that they can be a lethally potent offensive team or the fact that it evaporated as quickly as it came? This question of whether or not to panic about the 6-4 Celtics is so filled with grey areas, contrast, and question marks that it’s difficult to consider it without employing some quantum mechanics.
Schrodinger’s Cat was a thought experiment that was originally made to point out how silly the idea of superposition was. The basic idea was that a cat was locked in a sealed box with a contraption that had a 50% chance of killing the cat. Using the understandings of quantum mechanics at the time, until you opened the box and saw for yourself, the cat was considers half-dead and half alive. Only actually observing the cat would make it totally alive or dead.
If this sounds like it flies in the face of basic reasoning, well Schrodinger thought so, too. That’s why he picked this example, but since then, physicists say that this is actually something that’s not outside the realm of possibility, and you can actually have something that’s half-dead and half-alive.
That’s where I stand with the Boston Celtics after this game in Denver. We won’t know whether the cat is dead or alive until we “open the box” come playoff time and see what this team does when the chips are down. It’s gonna be hard to make any certain determinations before that time about exactly what the status of the team is. Right now, however, we have a team that’s half-dead and half-alive. The box could be opened come playoff time and the healthy Celtics turn into the juggernaut we always thought they would be. It could also reveal something far more sinister (though I don’t really think that will be the case). Until that time, we are stuck in superposition, unable to observe and with a team that seems caught between existence for now.
I just know that you can’t beat the Warriors or even the Raptors when you’re half-dead.