The Celtics have played in close games. Two of their losses have come in double overtime against the Knicks on Opening Night and over the weekend in Washington. A win against the Hornets was sealed by a gutty performance in OT. That’s been the razor thin margin between winning and losing against some of the conference’s best teams.
On the other hand, they’ve also fell victim to such unique circumstances that most teams only see over the course of an 82-game season, not in their first week. The loss in New York came after two starters, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, were coming off of ten-day quarantines after testing positive for COVID (Horford didn’t play). In the second game against the Wizards on Saturday night, the Celtics missed their first twenty three-pointers. Basketball can be a proverbial roller coaster ride, but these peaks and valleys rival the Grand Canyon and Everest.
Fast forward to Monday night against the visiting Bulls. After Chicago hit their first five 3’s that put them up nine points early in the first quarter, Boston stormed back and built a 19-point lead late in the third.
And then, like so many times already in this young season, something unexpected and unprecedented happened. “We stopped playing as hard as we were, started to relax, got a little cute, careless, and the message at that point with two minutes left in the third was ‘keep playing,’” head coach Ime Udoka said after the game. “They’re not going to stop playing in transition. We’re scoring well, but we started giving up too many baskets in transition.”
Welcome to Small Sample Size Anomaly Theater. With a 14-point lead entering the final frame, the Bulls did not miss a single two-point shot in the 4th (and went 3-for-6 from behind the arc) and went 10-for-11 from the free throw line. The Celtics, on the other hand, missed all eight of their three pointers and only grabbed two defensive rebounds during that decisive 37-9 run to close the game. These are the growing pains of such a young roster.
“It’s a good lesson learned. Some nights, you deserve to win. I felt that against Washington. Some nights, you deserve to lose when you don’t take the game seriously,” Udoka said. “We lost our composure there a little bit when they started blitzing Jayson, but overall, it’s because we relaxed when we got the lead like the game was over.”
A week ago, Udoka questioned the team’s focus and effort in the home loss to Washington. Some of that lackadaisical play naturally came back to bite them after building such a big lead. However, more concerning could be the internal criticism of the team’s best players, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, by the team’s vocal leader, Marcus Smart, of their late game play.
“Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys try and pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball and that’s something that they’re going to learn. They’re still learning.
We’re proud of the progress they’re making, but they’re going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves, but create for others on this team, to open up the court for them later down in the game where they don’t have to always going to take those tough shots or take tough match ups when do get the 1-on-1 or they bring the trap. Just reading that. It’s something we’ve been asking them to do and they’re learning. We just gotta continue to help those guys do that to help our team.”
But even after such a disappointing loss and falling to 2-5 on the year, Smart was confident that the Celtics would figure it out and that “before you see the rainbow, it has to rain. We’re going through the rain right now.”