It isn’t easy to look on the bright side of anything as a pandemic rages on, but when it comes to sports, it’s a bit easier. When dumbed down — emphasis on “dumbed” — a positive COVID case in a locker room is just another injury; at least, that’s how it’s handled. Another player steps in and gets a turn to prove that they can be an adequate replacement. It’s not ideal, but it’s often reality. Teams adapt as needed, and players take advantage of the extra time.
Most athletes would call that an opportunity. Last night’s game between the Boston Celtics and the Minnesota Timberwolves, one in which both rosters were greatly depleted by cases of COVID-19 ripping through their lineups, was an opportunity to the nth degree. Too bad only one team seemed to realize that for four quarters, while the other (I’ll give you one guess) collapsed down the stretch yet again. The Celtics lost on the road, 108-103, in a game that wasn’t nearly that close, a game that was most certainly an opportunity squandered.
“It was an opportunity for them tonight to show that they can play and the things they can do,” Al Horford said postgame. “They really took advantage of that.”
That Minnesota did, but it was an opportunity for the Celtics as well. Sure, Boston was missing Jayson Tatum, Dennis Schröder, Josh Richardson, Aaron Nesmith, Enes Freedom, Bruno Fernando, CJ Miles, and Justin Jackson due to health and safety protocols, as well as Marcus Smart due to a hand injury. But they had Horford and Grant Williams returning from their own stints in protocols, as well as by far the game’s best player, Jaylen Brown. This was a chance for the Celtics to show that, no matter how many men are down, they can outplay inferior opposition.
Instead, they continued to do what they’re slowly starting to make fans and writers think is what they do best: play to the level of their opponent, no matter how weak and ravaged that opponent may be. In this case, Boston allowed Minnesota reserves like Jaylen Nowell (29 points), Nathan Knight (20), and Greg Monroe (11; he was just signed on Sunday) to outplay their extended, albeit still familiar rotation.
Malik Beasley (15) and Jaden McDaniels (17) were the only two Timberwolves who tend to play regular rotation minutes alongside the typical starters; Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, and others were all in the COVID protocol. For the Celtics to allow a team as depleted as that to take a win away from them is, as Ime Udoka called it, “embarrassing.” Horford, ever the veteran, sounded as desperate as ever in his postgame comments.
“We have to look in the mirror at ourselves individually and as a team,” he said. “Right now, this is who we are... It’s not good enough. What we’re doing and the things that we want to accomplish, we can’t do it playing like this. We just can’t.”
He continued: “I believe, as professional athletes, we all have a job to do. Coach addresses certain things. He shows us things we need to do. But at the end of the day, as an individual player, you have to take pride individually and look at yourself in the mirror and see how you can be better at things you need to do. It has to be something that has to be consistent. At the end of the day, you have to hold us accountable. All of us are out there. We have to be held accountable and we need to be better. I know we keep saying that. To answer your question, I think individually, we have to look in the mirror and it’s not a numbers statement. It’s different things within the game that we have to face in order to be better.”
Perhaps the story of the night, aside from the collapse, was Jaylen Brown’s inability to take over a game that All-Stars typically relish. Brown looked uncharacteristically sloppy throughout his 26-point effort, shooting just 33 percent from the field. His individual box score looks the part (he added 10 rebounds and four assists), but he also turned the ball over six times and failed to be the spark Boston desperately needed. He acknowledged as much after the game.
“A lot of those turnovers came from miscommunications,” Brown said. “A lot of those defensive lapses came from miscommunications. That’s just what it comes down to is chemistry and things like that. We didn’t play well today. I didn’t play well today. I let my team down for sure.”
He continued: “The game isn’t as hard as I made it tonight and I didn’t play the way I know I can play. That was probably one of my worst games of the season as well. My team needed me to make plays and step up and I turned the ball over too much. I missed easy shots, easy reads, and we lost.”
Additionally, Brown raised eyebrows when he breezed past his teammate Horford’s “look in the mirror” comment with the verbal equivalent of a cold shrug. “Searching and looking in the mirror?” he said, “Nah. No comment.”
The Celtics have now lost four of their last six, including two straight. If looking in the mirror after every loss isn’t enough to right the ship, whether in Brown’s eyes or overall, perhaps acknowledging that it was “the worst loss of the season” will do the trick. But if it doesn’t, something simply has to change. It feels like that’s been the message all season, but if the shoe fits, wear it.