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A new low: 1 Takeaway from Celtics-Timberwolves

Boston suffered their worst loss of the season against a thrown-together Minnesota squad

Boston Celtics v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

1. Well…this wasn’t the plan. Through three quarters, and even a few minutes into the fourth quarter of Boston Celtics at Minnesota Timberwolves, there were over 20 notes jotted down. Good plays by Payton Pritchard and Romeo Langford. Al Horford and Grant Williams being back. There was even a Sam Hauser clip to be pulled.

Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men. After how the game ended, pulling good clips just seems…pointless?

Following the game, Ime Udoka, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown all called it a version of the “worst loss of the season”. And all three were right.

This space has tried to be mostly positive. If anything, the Takeaways are probably filled with too many rainbows and too much sunshine. We’ve pointed out that with good health after getting through a hellacious December schedule, the Celtics would likely take off.

After last night, to play those notes again would be disingenuous. Udoka, Horford and Brown are all correct. That was the worst loss of the season.

The Wolves played exactly two regular rotation players: Jaden McDaniels and Malik Beasley. While neither of them played terribly, those two weren’t the reason Boston lost.

Be honest: How many of you had heard of Nathan Knight and Jaylen Nowell before yesterday? Very few hands are likely up after reading that question.

And, of course, old friend Greg Monroe dominated the Celtics after being called up from the G League earlier that morning. Dominated. Called up earlier that morning.

Sure, the Celtics were missing players. They were without two starters in Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart and their two best reserves in Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson. That’s tough to overcome.

Well, until you see who did play for Boston compared to who played for Minnesota.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Minnesota Timberwolves Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

In a game where the Celtics needed him to step up, Jaylen Brown was awful. He shot just 8-of-24 from the floor and he had six turnovers. The turnover number would have been 10, had Brown’s teammates not bailed him a few times.

Somehow that wasn’t even as bad as Romeo Langford’s plus/minus. Now, single-game plus/minus can be wonky, but -32 in a five-point game is almost unfathomable.

And, while Robert Williams plus/minus wasn’t the disaster Langford’s was, he was pretty awful. Williams was back to the “jump at every fake” foul machine of his early years. His play was bad enough that Ime Udoka called him out specifically postgame.

And then there is Udoka himself. It’s hard to get overly critical when four rotation players are out, but at some point, he has to recognize when things aren’t working. Clearly Robert Williams was having a bad game and Udoka saw it. Langford was a mess, minus a few defensive highlights.

Relying on the 10-day hardship deal guys to save the day says volumes, but giving one or two of them a shot wouldn’t have been the worst idea. There’s almost no way Joe Johnson or Al-Farouq Aminu would have been worse than Langford was.

Boston Celtics Introduce Ime Udoka Press Conference Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

So, where do we go from here? The way this season has gone, the Celtics will probably win home games over the LA Clippers and Phoenix Suns. That would be fitting for this impossible to figure out team.

Or they’ll split. Or lose both. Who knows? Does it even really matter?

There are problems for Boston that run deeper than any one game. They have a new coach and several new players, and the same old problems exist. They lose focus during games and can’t close out wins.

Is health an issue? Sure. But again, look at who the Timberwolves played last night. Health is an issue for about 25 teams right now. Very few of them are bringing it up on a daily basis. Most are just pushing forward as best they can.

If you’re really honest in assessing this team, you have to ask one question: If fully healthy, what is this team’s ceiling?

With the way this season has gone, it’s hard to believe a truthful assessment yields anything beyond a first-round loss in the playoffs. Teams that lose games like Boston did in Minnesota don’t win playoff series. Not when the ledger is littered with similarly bad losses.

So, assuming you’re honest and see a playoff team, but not a good one, then what? That question is harder to answer. Mostly because all of the answers stink or they hurt.

Philadelphia 76ers Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The core group of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have had four-plus seasons together. That’s almost an eternity in the NBA. Teams simply don’t stay together that long. Even ones that are young and have been built through the draft. We have plenty of data now on what they can do as a group.

Yes, Tatum and Brown are still young and haven’t even hit their prime. But if we’re going to hold up making the Eastern Conference Finals twice as accomplishments, we can’t also use inexperience as an excuse. Those two, and Smart, have played deeper into the playoffs more often than many 10-year veterans. They’ve had the big-game experience.

Health-wise, Tatum is an iron man. The only time he’s been out was for COVID, and that’s gotten just about everyone at some point in the past two seasons.

Brown and Smart are far more hit-or-miss. Brown has missed time each of the last three seasons with different injuries. Knee, wrist, hamstring and other various short-term maladies have caused him to miss a good chunk of time each season.

Smart is consistently banged up. His all-out style of play, combined with a propensity to throw himself around while flopping for calls, leads to at least a handful of missed games each season.

But each of the three has played enough, and more importantly played enough together, that we know what we have. And what we have seems to have reached its expiration date.

Sometimes a mix just doesn’t work. That is one of the hardest things to admit. Look at the Portland Trail Blazers. They’ve given it nearly a decade. Always good, never good enough. The Indiana Pacers haven’t given it quite as long, but it’s clear that group isn’t winning big anytime soon.

Sometimes when you keep waiting for a team to make the leap, all you do is keep waiting.

When Boston lost in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, it looked like they had the brightest future in the NBA. Young talent surrounded by in-their-prime players, complemented by solid veterans looked like a recipe for multiple title runs.

Things fell apart quickly, because that’s what happens in the NBA. Windows are short, in part because contracts are short. Players are empowered to do whatever it takes to win a ring, because that’s the standard by which they are judged. If a team doesn’t act to make it happen, the players will.

The Celtics are right at that tipping point. They got close, but the days of saying “If only they were healthy…” have long-since passed. It’s been a season-and-a-half of .500 basketball. If Brad Stevens doesn’t change things, the players eventually will. It’s the way the wheel turns. And once the players change things themselves, they rarely change for the better. At least not for a while.

No, this isn’t a “Trade Tatum and Brown” argument. But maybe it is a “Trade Tatum OR Brown” argument? Maybe Smart needs to go? Maybe Stevens blew it with hiring Udoka? Maybe the whole veteran mix around those three stinks?

Even asking those questions is exhausting and feels bad.

It all sucks, because Tatum, Brown and Smart are OUR guys. The Celtics drafted them, and we’ve watched them grow into very good and important players. We’ve also watched them mature from essentially children into young men. That’s what makes it so hard.

There’s the fear that, if traded, one of them blows up. Maybe Tatum becomes the MVP or Brown is an All-NBA guy or Smart finally wins Defensive Player of the Year. And worse, they’d probably do it at the expense of the Celtics.

But even worse? Hanging on to hope for too long. Do that and, all of a sudden, a decade goes by and all you’re left with is a whole bunch of “What could have been...” thoughts. By then, the players will have moved on. And watching them succeed elsewhere will always be bittersweet because that could, and should, have happened here.

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