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Another late collapse: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-76ers

Boston was outscored 18-6 over the game’s final minutes as they fell to visiting Philadelphia

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

We’re going to do something a little different today. Instead of breaking down a bunch of clips, we’re going to have a little fun (we hope!) with this version of the Takeaways.

All of these comments were pulled from my Twitter mentions (@KeithSmithNBA). We’ve chosen not to embed the tweets for privacy reasons, plus some have since been deleted. But we can promise you that all are real. We’ll start with the comment, then a few thoughts about said comment. Some are valid, some are…well…you’ll see.

1. “Why can’t this team close games?”

The end feels like a good place to start. This has been an issue for three years running now. Going back to the bubble, the Boston Celtics have had issues closing out games. It’s happened often enough now that it’s a feature, not a bug.

How does it change? One good step would be to keep playing the way they did for the first 35-40 minutes of games. It’s fair to say all NBA games slow down in crunch time. But Boston slows games to a crawl.

The Celtics also revert to being a heavy ISO team, usually with Jayson Tatum having the ball. It’s not a problem for your best player to have the ball. It is a problem when that comes with four players standing around, while Tatum drains the clock and takes a contested jumper.

Keep pushing pace, keep moving the ball and stay on the attack. Those seem like three good things to change to get wins.

2. “Why is everyone so upset? This is a .500 team.”

Hard to argue here. The 2021-22 Boston Celtics have proven to be exactly that. The Celtics have been under .500 by three games once this season, and never over .500 by more than two games. Each time the team has seemed to get some positive momentum, they lose two or three games and fall back.

This writer was one of the optimistic ones heading into the season. Improved depth, plus better health figured to add up to a decent season. But it wasn’t over the top optimism either. The prediction was 48 wins and a second-round playoff exit.

At this point, if you were still expecting to see Boston raise Banner 18 this season, that’s probably on you. This team was never at that level. Don’t let your outsized expectations set the tone for the rest of the season. It’s beyond time to adjust.

3. “Why didn’t Ime (Udoka) play (Justin) Jackson or (C.J.) Miles? Why even sign them if you won’t play them?”

Here’s one of those absurd mentions. Both Justin Jackson and C.J. Miles were signed because the Celtics have a number of players out. No different than any of the other 30 such players to be signed via hardship this season. There is no expectation for hardship players to play, let alone to impact winning or losing.

Yes, a diamond in the rough may emerge. But these are largely “get by” guys. There’s a reason they were all in the G League.

In Jackson’s case, we have four years of NBA evidence that’s he’s a great minor leaguer, but not a good enough big leaguer. For Miles, it’s impressive that he battled back after being out of the league for more than a year. But he’s a 15-year veteran. Miles isn’t riding a white horse into TD Garden to save the day.

Simply put: If a 10-Day replacement player is the savior, dial back your expectations big time.

4. “Why did Enes Freedom play so much? Ime (Udoka) should be fired based on that alone.”

This one is both fair, but lacks context. Well, the first part is fair. The second part is silly.

Boston had exactly two available big men against Philadelphia. Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando. Ime Udoka wasn’t exactly swimming in available options.

Digging a little deeper, Freedom has actually held his own against Joel Embiid for the most part. No, he doesn’t shut him down. No one does. But Freedom can bang with him inside and make Embiid work. And the 76ers don’t attack out of pick-and-roll all that much, so it makes it easier for Freedom to stay on the floor. Plus, Freedom tends to score on Embiid at a decent rate, for whatever reason.

As for Fernando, he’s a foul machine. For his career, his per-36 minutes fouls are 5.0. He’s even pushed the limits of fouling out of Summer League games, where the cap is 10 fouls. Embiid is the league’s preeminent foul-drawer, now that James Harden and Trae Young have been corralled in that department. Putting Fernando on Embiid would have been a disaster.

Matching Freedom’s minutes to Embiid’s was the best hope Boston had without Al Horford, Robert Williams and Grant Williams.

5. “Brad (Stevens) screwed up by not adding a better big. Al (Horford) is old and Rob (Williams) is always hurt.”

This is sort of hard to argue too. Then again, Enes Freedom as a fourth big for the minimum is fine. You just can’t expect it to go well if your fourth big has to play 30-plus minutes against one of the best centers in the NBA.

6. “Why not double-team (Joel) Embiid more?”

Another fair question. Postgame, Ime Udoka said the Celtics didn’t want to double too much, because of Joel Embiid’s improvement as a passer and Philadelphia having solid shooting. Udoka said the plan was to give up long-twos, and for the most part that’s what happened. Embiid just shot out of his mind on those shots.

In a very real way, if you lose because Embiid makes a bunch of jumpers, you tip your cap and move on to the next game.

7. “Fire Ime”

Some version of this, usually left with just those two words, has been rampant since the second game of the Celtics season. There’s usually no reasoning provided. Just a simple “Fire Ime” or sometimes a more emphatic “FIRE IME!!!!!!!!!!!!!”.

It’s lazy and dumb. Just as it was lazy and dumb when the responses were “Fire Brad”.

Ime Udoka is not above criticism. His rotations and lineup pairings have been odd sometimes, even when factoring in absences of rotation players. His ATOs need a lot of work. Late-game offense remains a major issue.

But Udoka is a first-time head coach. Expecting him to have it all figured out 30 games into the season is foolishness. He’s shown signs of figuring out the lineups, especially when most of the team is available. The ATOs lately seem more about execution than play-calls. Late-game offense? Well, as covered above, that’s tough.

8. “Can the Celtics send (Aaron) Nesmith to the G League and sign Joe Johnson?”

This is where the old Bill Simmons’ trope of “Yup, these are my readers” seems to apply.

This wasn’t trolling or being funny. This was an actual suggestion, followed by reasons why and, even more worrisome, agreed with by several others.

Joe Johnson is 40 years old. He hasn’t played in the NBA since 2017-18. A brief comeback attempt with the Detroit Pistons in 2019 was ended when Johnson couldn’t run full court anymore.

Even if Johnson found the Fountain of Youth, people hate how much ISO ball the Celtics already play. The solution is to sign a guy with the nickname “ISO Joe”?

Yup, these are my followers.

9. “Why doesn’t Payton Pritchard play more? He can help space the floor.”

This is another fair question/criticism. Early in the year Pritchard wasn’t hitting his jumper and seemed overwhelmed on defense. But it’s clear from the last two games that the Celtics need his shooting on the floor.

Just as important as Pritchard’s shooting, Boston needs his spacing. Because he’ll let it fly from 30 or more feet, he pulls defenders way out. That opens up driving and passing lanes for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

One suggestion for Ime Udoka: Stop pairing Pritchard with Dennis Schroder. That’s a mess defensively and they don’t play off each other well enough on offense to offset that.

10. “So…do I just throw my hands up and say, ‘It is what it is’ with this team?”

As much as it may be painful, the answer here is: Yes. For now, at least.

As covered above, the Celtics are a .500 team. In some respects, that’s remarkable given how banged up they’ve been. Every team is going through it, but Boston has missed key players a lot this season.

In other respects, that’s disappointing. The talent is there to be better, for sure. The young stars haven’t stepped up quite as hoped for. (Before we go there: The answer isn’t trading Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. Stop with that already.)

But rational reasons or disappointment aside, the reality is this team is just kind of OK right now. It’s time to accept that reality vs dreaming it was different.

The approach here is to step back and take a deep breath. The rest of this month is probably going to continue to be up-and-down. Availability issues and the schedule are real challenges.

In January, we’ll hopefully get a real good sense if this group can make any sort of run. They should be healthier (fingers crossed!), and the schedule lightens up a good deal.

The good news? That’s a month of data for Brad Stevens prior to the trade deadline. If Boston is still sitting around .500 come February 10, Stevens will know it’s time to look at some changes. Maybe not to salvage this season, but to set things up for the future.

For now, take it one game at a time. Wednesday’s home matchup against the surprising, but protocol-ravaged Cleveland Cavaliers is a good place to start. See you back here after that one with the normal version of the Takeaways.