1. Unacceptable. There really isn’t any other way to put it. You can use the excuse that Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown were out. You can use the schedule as an excuse if you would like that. None of that really flies though. The reality is that losing to the Phoenix Suns at home, in a game where you feel behind big once again, is unacceptable.
Boston’s defense wasn’t good for the vast majority of the night. Devin Booker went off, as per usual. Part of the reason why? It was way too easy for him. He made a couple of tough looks, but overall, Booker got what he wanted, when he wanted, wherever he wanted it.
But it wasn’t just Booker. Mikal Bridges made a career-high six three-pointers. DeAndre Ayton had his way inside. Dario Saric did what he usually does against Boston and came up with a bunch of sneaky big plays.
The Celtics offense? Thank God for Marcus Smart, or they would have been blown out. Smart set a franchise record with 11 three-pointers and was easily Boston’s best player all game long.
While that’s great for Smart, it says a lot about how the night went for Boston. Without Walker and Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward just didn’t do enough. The box score doesn’t look like it. It shows they were both ok. But if you watched, they never made a real impact on the game. When the Celtics needed them most, they weren’t good enough.
That’s kind of been the story over the last few weeks for Boston: Not good enough.
This space has defended the Celtics more often than not. It’s also preached patience. Losing streaks happen. Bad stretches happen. Even bad homes losses against terrible teams happen. The NBA season is a long one, and unless you’re historically great, you usually get at least a little taste of it all.
But…continuing to lose to bad teams at home isn’t something that good teams do. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different result, then the Celtics are insane. Continually falling behind by big margins and relying on fighting their way back isn’t a sustainable way to play.
The 2019-20 Boston Celtics are at the halfway point of the season and are 27-14. That’s significantly better than a year ago, despite only being actually two games better in the standings. However, it’s long-past time to put last year away. That nightmare is over. But, is a new nightmare starting?
Let’s be real, the team has problems, even when fully healthy. Outside of Smart and Enes Kanter, the bench stinks. It’s full of rookies and journeymen, both groups of which play exactly to their status. The shooting comes and goes. There isn’t a single player on the roster you can feel comfortable with calling any sort of sharpshooter. The defense and rebounding were both so good early in the year, but have dropped way off.
Most of all, the effort level has been wildly inconsistent. Not just from game to game, but even within games. When you fall behind by a bunch every time out, but are always able to rally to make it a game, it leaves one question: Where is that effort to start games?
The consistency on offense and defense can be somewhat blamed on not having the same lineup available for more than a game or two due to injuries. That shows up in how disconnected the team looks on a regular basis right now.
The effort level? That can ultimately be blamed on Brad Stevens. He’s the coach. He’s the leader of the team. He needs to be the one to correct that. It’s not as if the team doesn’t have it in them. The furious rallies show that they do. If this was a once and a while thing, you could hand-wave it away as no big deal. But it’s almost every game now. That’s a problem. If they players won’t bring it, it’s up to Stevens to pull them and go to guys who will. Eventually the main guys will figure it out. If they don’t? You were never winning with them anyway.
What about the elephant in the room? Gordon Hayward is never going to be the guy he was in Utah. That sucks, because his career and the Celtics history were forever altered when Hayward broke his leg in Cleveland. He’s not trash, as some love to describe him, but when Hayward missed the layup against the Suns off a lob out of a beautiful ATO from Stevens, even his most ardent defenders were left shaking their heads.
Hayward’s just not going to be an All-Star. Not ever again. That player shows up on occasion, but it’s a cameo appearance in an ensemble film, not a leading role in an Oscar winner.
A lot of people see Hayward as the trade piece to bring in the reinforcements the Celtics need to reach true contender status. If only it were that easy. Hayward makes a ton of money. That makes finding any sort of trade a tricky one. There’s also the matter of perception. Danny Ainge already has a rep for being heartless when it comes to dealing players. That’s something you have to be careful of. Players and agents have long memories and Isaiah Thomas getting traded while injured, after all he gave to the Celtics, is still talked about around the NBA three seasons later.
Beyond all that, Boston is at their best when Hayward’s an involved playmaker. He doesn’t have to be Utah Hayward, he just needs to be consistently solid. Stevens and Ainge know that, and it’s the reason he’s not going anywhere more than anything else. If this team, as built right now, is doing anything this season, Hayward will be a major part of that. And Ainge isn’t ready to give up on that yet.
So, how does this get fixed? Maybe there is a small deal or two to upgrade the bench. That would help a lot. Maybe Stevens can crack the code on how to get his troops focused from the tip. Maybe the guys will dig down and find their pride and not want a repeat of last season. Maybe it really is as simple as getting healthy.
It’s not panic time yet, as the season still has a long way to go. But it’s definitely time for concern. With the rival Lakers coming to town on Monday, another home loss will fully set off the alarms. But let’s give these guys a little benefit of the doubt. They’ve punched their way off the ropes before. But if the Lakers land an uppercut, this group might be down for the count earlier than expected once again. Even if that KO is really still months away.