1. Well…here we are again. This Celtics season reminds me of an old quote from George Carlin that I’ll paraphrase here: “Oh, you hate this team? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar!”
A few years ago, sitting at 37-24 would have been just fine. But the expectations were raised for this season, and rightly so. And Boston hasn’t lived up to them. Several have said some version of “This is a good team that is prone to bad stretches”. Maybe it’s time to look at this through another lens. Maybe they are just an OK team that had one great stretch. This makes them no different than many other average teams that play above their head for a few weeks. At any rate, the loss at Toronto was the latest in a 0-for-3 stretch to open the post-All-Star break portion of the schedule. Let’s dive in to what went wrong in this most recent debacle.
2. For some odd reason, Marcus Smart is on a string of games where his passing has been all over the place. Normally, he takes pretty good care of the ball. He’ll cough it up on occasion, but it’s usually because the defender makes a good play. Starting with the game in Milwaukee, he’s been throwing wild passes that have no chance. Or Smart has been throwing passes that just aren’t there, like this one against the Raptors:
3. That turnover was part of an 18-0 run by Toronto. And, yet again, Brad Stevens didn’t call a timeout quick enough. He waited until the run was at 13-0 and the Raptors were leading 43-34. Stevens has talked a lot about how he needs to be better. Calling timeouts earlier in runs and not letting his team get down would be a nice place to start. We all know Stevens likes to let his guys play through it and figure it out. But this group clearly isn’t capable of that. It’s up to the coach to take control sometimes and Stevens still isn’t doing so.
4. Stevens and Smart talked about not being connected on the court defensively in the last two games. A perfect example is on this play. It’s a nice play design on a Spain pick and roll from Nick Nurse and the Raptors execute it perfectly. Normally you would see Marcus Morris rotate over to the driving Kawhi Leonard, while Robert Williams drops to pick up Serge Ibaka in the paint. Instead, Williams doesn’t drop (more on him next) and Morris stays stuck to Ibaka.
Toronto ATO - Spain Pick & Roll pic.twitter.com/OVLviScpRy— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) February 27, 2019
When Boston is connected defensively, they rotate, switch, switch back and jump switch better than anyone in the NBA. Right now, none of that is happening and it’s led to back-to-back great offensive nights for opponents.
5. Let’s talk about the Time Lord. We all love his energy and his explosiveness. The potential is there. But it’s important to remember he was drafted late in the first round for a lot reasons, one of which is that he’s a multi-year project. Watch close when he’s on the floor. He doesn’t understand how to defend pick and rolls or back screens. That’s not the end of the world. He’s a rookie. This stuff takes time. On offense, it’s a continuous stream of his teammates and coaches positioning him. Again, he’s a rookie, so this isn’t unexpected.
Williams will get better, but the Celtics aren’t cruising to wins right now, nor are they bad enough to not care about wins. Boston can’t afford to throw him 10-15 minutes a night to develop him. Williams’ time comes in practices and games in the NBAGL. That’s where young bigs develop when their team has stakes. He’s not the answer to any of the multitude of questions Boston has right now. And Williams won’t be the answer to them this year and probably not next year either.
6. On the Players Only broadcast (I know, I know), they talked about how Toronto wanted to make Boston quit. Mission accomplished. Sometimes in games you can tell when a team has given up. Sometimes it’s a cumulative thing, but other times there is a very clear moment. On this play, Pascal Siakam made a steal and went coast-to-coast for a dunk. A few different Celtics could have made an effort to stop him, or at least foul him. Instead, Siakam got the easy dunk and Boston’s spirit was broken.
7. Postgame, Kyrie Irving didn’t have much to say for a change. When asked about Stevens’ and Smart’s comments, he deferred to both of them. When asked what he thinks in a follow-up, he simply remained silent. Irving has tried to motivate his teammates by calling them out. He’s tried to put it on himself. After the loss to the Bulls he expressed optimism that everything will be fine. After this loss, he just stayed quiet. It was the latest in what’s been a trying season for Irving, both on and off the court.
8. How does it get better? And when does that happen? We’ve seen the Celtics at their best this season. Irving is correct: when they play their best, no one is beating them in a seven-game series. Unfortunately, we’ve seen Boston at their worst far too many times to be confident that the best will show up at least four times in a playoff series.
It comes down to effort and consistency. If guys aren’t able to give great effort, it’s time to pull them off the court. Some of the breakdowns the last two games came because players just didn’t seem to care. That’s unacceptable.
It’s probably time for Stevens to make a lineup change. Maybe he should go back to the opening night lineup of Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford. Let Smart run the second unit with Morris and Terry Rozier off the ball carrying the scoring load. Maybe when Aron Baynes returns, his attitude and effort will help set things right. Maybe the players will just flip a switch. That’s a lot of maybes.
As for when: it has to be soon. There are only 21 games left. And Boston’s doesn’t have it easy in the near-term. They’ve got home games with Portland and Houston (with a Washington home game tucked in between), then it’s a tough west coast swing against teams that are all fighting for playoff spots/positioning.
This trip comes with the Celtics homecourt hopes for the playoffs very much in doubt. Forget the one or two seed, those are pipe dreams even the staunchest optimist can’t still believe in. Boston trails Indiana by three games for the three seed and Philadelphia by two games for the four seed. The Celtics have two games left with the Pacers and one with the 76ers (who they already own the tiebreaker over), so they can still make their own bed. But, for those games to even matter, Boston has to get it together. Otherwise, they’re likely headed on the road for the first round, which was an unfathomable proposition at the beginning of the season.