This is just one big takeaway. This is as bad as you’ve felt about the Celtics since they traded away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Even then, you could be sold on a bright future with a bunch of draft picks, despite knowing the near-term was probably going to be pretty ugly.
This season started with as much hope, and as high of expectations, as any in recent memory. Boston came within an off-shooting night of making the NBA Finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward last season. Those two returning, combined with growth of the young players would surely equal getting to the Finals.
Even the biggest optimist knew that the first month or so could be a little bumpy. It’s not easy to ask some guys to take a step back, while integrating two players who have All-Star pedigrees. In a lot of ways, the 10-10 start was expected. Most figured that would probably be rock bottom for this group.
Instead, in late-February, we still have no idea who the Celtics are. Even scarier? They don’t either. The post-game quotes from Brad Stevens to each player run the gamut from “We have to be better” to “We did some things we can build on”. It’s word salad that looks and sounds pretty, but has no real substance. Worse? It’s been this way for months now.
Boston will win a handful of games and look pretty good doing it, and it seems like they’ve figured it out. Then comes a bad loss. Not the end of the world. Everyone has a bad loss sprinkled in here and there. But the Celtics go in these spirals, where they lose at least a couple in a row. Only six times this season, have the Celtics lost a game and bounced right back with a win. They’ve had multiple two-game stumbles, and three three-game losing streaks and the current four-game slide.
When Boston looks bad, they look really bad. And that even carries over to some of the wins too. Now, a lot of coaches will say “Win by 1 or 100, lose by 1 or 100, they all count the same”, which is true. But for the psyche of a team, you’d like more consistency. An old cliché in sports, and life, is that sometimes a person or team is only consistent in their inconsistency. The Celtics represent that in every possible way.
The Trail Blazers game followed an all-too-familiar losing pattern lately: Solid first quarter, sluggish/bad middle quarters, big rally to make it close in the fourth. Although Boston never trailed by more than 12 against Portland, the game also never really felt close until Marcus Smart brought some heroics in the fourth to make it a game.
Let’s pause and talk about Smart for a minute. Sometimes it looks like he’s the only player who cares on the floor. As scouts like to say his “give-a-shit factor is off the charts”. Irving has always played with a “too cool for school” demeanor, which is fine. You can’t have a team full of raving maniacs, or everything gets out of balance. Al Horford rarely shows any fire, but that’s the guy he’s always been. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are too young to do or say much, and we don’t fully know what their on-court attitudes really are just yet.
That leaves it to Smart and Marcus Morris to be the ones who get the team and fans fired up. Morris is struggling so mightily right now, that he’s almost out of the picture. That left it to Smart to put it on his shoulders, and boy did he ever. He pressured the ball, got in passing lanes, drove to the rim and did a bunch of stuff that really only he does. And it got the Celtics back in the game. Then it all fell apart.
Smart said after the game that he was trying to get fouled on the play, but that it was a “dumb ass shot by me”. He owned it. But you know what? Smart deserved to take that shot. Maybe not in the way he took it, but he deserved to take the big shot. Smart was the lone Celtic who didn’t sleepwalk through most of the game. He brought them back. If you’re going down, go down swinging.
Over the last week it’s become fashionable to say “Just wait for the playoffs. We’ve seen what this team can do when they play their best”. Which is true. Irving is right when he says Boston can beat anyone in a seven-game series. They’ve shown that time and time again this season.
The problem with that? About 20 NBA teams woke up feeling that exact same way this morning. The Orlando Magic just went to Toronto and won convincingly. They say similar things every day too “When we play our game, we can beat anyone.” That’s how it works in the NBA. The key is to bring that effort every game. To be consistent in how you play. That’s when you know who you are and what you can expect. With the season three-quarters gone, no one should be asking “Who are we? What’s our identity as a team?”
Maybe Kyrie Irving is right. Maybe this team just needs to get to the playoffs to show everyone who they are. Or maybe that playoff stay will be very short. At this point no one can confidently say they know who the Celtics are and what to expect from them, because the Celtics don’t know the answer to those questions either.