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Something seems off about these Celtics (again)

On being open to a variety of solutions, but not the path they’re currently on.

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

It’s been years of .500, but even slightly worse than that.

The Celtics lost in five games to the Nets last postseason, bringing their record to a collective 53-58 since the NBA bubble. The East has since improved and fellow rising playoff contenders sent the Celtics’ slogging pace toward a new likely annual destination — the play-in tournament. Little about this ride has been fun, and it’s probably time for a discussion on where it’s headed.

They’ve played under .500 one season later, now losers of seven of their last 10 and 5-8 in a miserable December. Stevens earlier this year commented on this team’s play being better than last year’s start — 8-3 before finishing 36-36. That held true for some time following early season turmoil swirling around Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum following a meltdown against the Bulls. We’ve now been able to use the same word, or worse, to describe losses to the Timberwolves, Bucks, 76ers, Warriors, Clippers, Lakers and Spurs recently.

The Celtics’ assist rate is down near the bottom of the league again, their defense is above average, but ranks among the worst in the NBA in the fourth quarter. They still can’t shoot, they rarely reach the basket and play the second most frequent isolation basketball in the league. They appear out of answers, repeating the same empty mantras post-game that may lead to a momentary step forward, but this year, two steps back always seem sure to follow.

COVID, injuries, all the rest are surely there, but are present almost everywhere in the league. Chicago has been hit worse, but they remain atop the East. The Cavaliers lost Collin Sexton for the season and kept rising. The Nets haven’t had Kyrie Irving, and James Harden has largely played as a shell of himself, and yet Kevin Durant keeps rising.

And now, the excuse train in Boston is reaching its final stop. With less than one month until the entire roster becomes trade-eligible, this may be the last run for this core.

And no, I don’t believe in trading Jaylen Brown. I’ve seen too much growth, continued potential and — in this league of talent — lateral moves hoping for a better fit and greener grass could spell a premature end to this era.

So too, though, could continuing to wait two seasons past Gordon Hayward’s departure for things to change. Little has.

Boston is still less than the sum of its parts. Brown and Tatum have played well, and even started to play off each other. Smart is in the midst of a comeback year, as is Al Horford. Josh Richardson and Dennis Schröder have contributed nicely as newcomers, while Robert Williams III is playing more often and consistently. Unfortunately, none of it seems to overlap or glue together into a 48-minute effort, and when things become difficult, it only gets worse.

“At a point, it starts to snowball,” Ime Udoka said this week of the Celtics’ late-game struggles. “We’ve got to kind of settle down at that point and get somebody to calm everyone down, because it starts to snowball, and it’s not just one guy or two guys, it’s multiple guys who will try to do it on their own a little bit there.”

The crunch time visuals are ghastly. Players pointing each other to directions on the floor, then missing reads themselves. Occasionally, the ball lands in other teams’ hands. Udoka has softened the blows in certain situations and come down hard in others.

Hearing him approve of the Celtics’ closing shots against Milwaukee was surprising. Then criticizing the team for not knowing Minnesota’s tendencies, when he said pre-game they were more focused on themselves than anything the Wolves were doing amid COVID cases, only raised that intrigue.

The new head coach built an admirably successful switching defensive scheme in a short amount of time this fall and impressed more of a playmaking mindset to his two young stars, but offensive growth and youth development have eluded him.

This isn’t on the coach though. Young players haven’t broken through under consecutive staffs. Developments haven’t strung beyond a week or two for either and the closing issues stem back to the mildly successful 2019-20 campaign. That year almost became defined by blowing what should’ve been a 3-0 lead against Toronto, and ultimately was by an East Finals loss to Miami as favorites.

So what are we waiting for?

We’ve seen this core collective lose with more and less talented groups. Leaning on veterans led to maybe an extra win or two, but also at the cost of not learning what they have in Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams over extended stretches, not to mention Williams III last year. They’ve remained flexible while not diving all-in on a major move like other Eastern powerhouses have. But once this season ends, we’ll be able to see Brown and Tatum’s free agencies in the near future, and what did these last two seasons accomplish for this group?

We can go over all the misses and mistakes by Danny Ainge in his closing years, but those are done. Brad Stevens took over and cleaned up things nicely in his first summer, but without taking a solid step forward. His success will ultimately be limited by the restrictions that past placed upon him. As successful as the Kemba Walker-Horford swap was, Boston may eventually truly regret forgoing the chance to draft Alperen Şengün at No. 16 overall. Missteps like this look worse in the present when it seems like the future is what Stevens should be targetting.

Hearing Stevens appear at college games and in Europe is encouraging, as were rave Summer League review for his first pick, Juhann Begarin. If better drafting becomes Stevens’ road to reinventing this core, I’ll accept it. Any major trade will do as well. Nothing should be off the table, even looking at other options to lead the franchise into the future if Stevens gets the head coaching itch again soon.

The mix is off. Various veterans haven’t solved or altered it. Smart’s best efforts have only induced temporary spurts. His tenure will unbelievably hit one decade soon, with the Jays far from young in terms of experience. The youth around them haven’t shown anything except a solid attribute or two, and with that I think we’ve seen enough.

Coaching and executive changes haven’t solved anything yet. Changes along the ancillary of the roster haven’t either. Consolidation and relieving the Jays of the burden they’ve taken on, between shooting, playmaking and scoring, would be lovely (I agree with much of what Jeff wrote this week), though hopefully they’ve already explored trading picks and anyone aside from Brown and Tatum. If not, I’d be worried.

It hasn’t felt right, because it probably isn’t right. I think back to Zach Lowe asking Kemba Walker what’s in the water in Boston? The star didn’t know — nobody seems to.

But it’s time for substantive change in Boston.