On Thursday night, the Boston Celtics lost to the resurgent Houston Rockets 127-113. It was a loss that has proven to have brought out quite a bit of nervousness and angst from Celtics fans.
My role, for once, is to play it cool. The Rockets loss, while a little disappointing in the heat of the moment, was one of the team’s most excusable losses of the season. The Celtics played well and largely went punch-for-punch with Houston throughout the game; for instance, though the Houston lead pushed near 20 points in the first half, Boston trailed by just two points at halftime thanks to a 22-7 run to close the second quarter. It was a game that ultimately came down to a single run, at the start of the fourth quarter, which put the Celtics behind for good. It was a winnable game, which rightfully spawns some frustration, but every team loses some winnable games from time to time.
One recurring trend I’ve noticed throughout this season has been a feverish need to find a scapegoat on the part of Celtics fans. Thursday night, the most prominent victim of this negativity was certainly Daniel Theis, who racked up a team-worst +/- of -27 during his 18 minutes on the court. Admittedly, Theis did not play well; he struggled to contain Clint Capela in the paint on a night where the Rockets out-rebounded Boston 54-38, and he was toast whenever Houston forced him to switch onto James Harden, who was at his MVP-like best with 45 points for the night. That’s a bad game, however you slice it.
Still, it feels as though there’s a degree of context that has been lost in the discussion of Theis’ performance. He played poorly, but the Celtics were also severely short-handed in the frontcourt — Al Horford, in just his third game back from a knee injury, remained on a 25-minute limit (he was a +10 in the 24 minutes he played), while Aron Baynes missed his fourth consecutive game with a broken hand and Robert Williams was a surprising late scratch with a left leg issue.
That left Theis, the team’s third-string center, to see substantial minutes on Capela, a robot designed in a lab to grab rebounds and catch lobs from James Harden, and a likely All-Star and potential All-NBA candidate. As I discussed a few weeks ago, the Celtics’ frontcourt is built to play on match-ups, and this particular match-up had Aron Baynes written all over it. What, exactly, should the expectations have been?
Some have argued that Theis should have been replaced with Guerschon Yabusele, who was a +3 in his five brief minutes for the night. And, in fairness, Yabusele acquitted himself quite well in that short cameo — he played excellent defense against Harden in an ISO situation, and later picked up a steal. Still, even this rings a little hollow; as the Celtics have struggled, Yabusele has started to become a greater target for fans disappointed in his lack of impact since being drafted in the first round in 2016. Though he’s returned quickly from an ankle sprain that seemed likely to keep him out for significant time, his lack of impact as a former first round pick has put him in some fans’ crosshairs. And, indeed, as soon as he checked in, I saw people complaining that he was taking the court.
This is how these losses have gone all year. If it’s not Theis or Yabusele catching the blame, it’s Jaylen Brown (who has been struggling with an injury to his shooting hand for a month) or Gordon Hayward (and I really shouldn’t need to tell you why that’s off-base). Marcus Smart still catches flak with regularity, even as he’s been the catalyst behind the Celtics’ resurgence (he’s 10-4 as a starter). Seemingly the only players immune from the mob thus far this season have been Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris — with good reason, to be fair.
This wasn’t something we saw nearly as much of last season, and that likely has a lot to do with expectations. After Hayward’s season-opening injury, hopes for championship contention became largely unrealistic. The Celtics were playing with house money, and fans were better able to enjoy the ride when they knew the ceiling was probably capped.
That’s not the case this season, as we (perhaps unfairly) set much higher expectations for the fully healthy squad. This is the “going all-in” season; throughout the summer, the Celtics were consistently the top answer to the question “which team could dethrone the Warriors?” Now, as they’ve struggled to find consistency through the first third of the season, every loss feels a little more impactful, especially as teams like Toronto and Milwaukee have shown flashes of serious dominance.
Even as inconsistent as the Celtics have been, though, their chances of a serious postseason run have not really been affected at all to this point. They have the fourth-best net rating in basketball, and they’ve scored wins over all of the Eastern Conference’s elite — Toronto, Milwaukee and twice against Philadelphia. When you look at the current landscape of the league, nearly every single contender has been going through sizable frustrations of their own; Toronto can’t stay healthy and still hasn’t found an on-court balance between Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, Philadelphia still can’t space the floor even a little bit, Denver is missing three of their five starters, and even Golden State has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness on the parts of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. The NBA, as it stands now, is more wide open than it has been in a long time.
All of this circles back around to my original point: this Rockets loss was one that does not require a scapegoat. The Celtics lost a competitive game to a good team on a night where they were undermanned in a way that played to that team’s strengths. That’s all it was. They did not get blown out, despite what the 14-point margin of victory might suggest; though the fourth quarter might leave a bad taste in most fans’ mouths, that 22-7 run cannot be forgotten, nor the absurdly competitive third quarter that featured a straight-up shootout between Irving and Harden.
Here's a clip of Kyrie vs Harden on back-to-back possessions. This is fun. pic.twitter.com/oH8yj2sTDy— Chris Grenham (@chrisgrenham) December 28, 2018
This Celtics season has been undeniably frustrating, nobody’s arguing against that. The team hasn’t reached the bar they’ve set for themselves yet, and we’re all collectively waiting for them to “figure it out.” There’s a line, though, between taking a critical look at the team’s struggles and wildly overreacting to the most recent results. Theis had a bad night, but he’s generally enjoyed an effective season as a low-minute match-up play off the bench. He doesn’t suddenly deserve to be cut from the team. It feels like it’s time for everyone to take a small step back and keep the greater picture of the season in mind. We might just keep each other a little more sane that way.