1. The Celtics return home to Boston off a 2-3 road trip and with a barely-above-.500 record of 12-11. The good news? The Eastern Conference stinks like chicken that you didn’t take out to the curb in time for trash pickup. That has the team somehow still in fourth place in the East.
Could the Celtics have gone 5-0 on the trip? Sure. Could they have gone 0-5? Less likely, but also a possibility. Instead, they went 2-3 and were a play or two away from 3-2. Basically, a perfectly average team.
That’s what the Celtics are at this moment. The key term being “at this moment”. Boston now has a string of home games and the schedule features several lesser opponents. The road trip told us the Celtics are capable, but aren’t there. The next couple of weeks will give us a much better sense of who this team actually is.
2. Kemba Walker looks fine physically. He really does. But his timing and rhythm are incredibly off. He’s not shooting at the top of his jump on his jumper. He’s either shooting on the way up or on the way down. His handle and passes are ok, but regularly just a little bit off.
One way we can tell Walker is off his game? He got this pullup jumper blocked. Sure, it’s Rudy Gobert, but no one really blocks Walker’s pullup unless they get it from behind or from the side. Getting it straight blocked is very rare. This is concerning for where his timing and confidence are at:
Right now, Kemba Walker not only isn’t helpful, he’s damaging. Everyone from Danny Ainge to Brad Stevens to his teammates to Walker himself thinks it will come back. They all better be right, or this team will never reach their ceiling. Undersized guards need to be scoring/playmaking wizards. Walker is barely a sorcerer’s apprentice currently.
3. No idea whose fault this is, but Grant Williams and Robert Williams blow this pick-and-roll coverage about as badly as you can. They don’t trap or press up on Jordan Clarkson and no one picks up Rudy Gobert on the roll. The Celtics defense was worse in the second half, especially late in the game, but there were breakdowns like this all throughout the game:
4. On the flip side, Grant Williams did make some nice defensive plays. He had a few deflections that saved layups or dunks. And this is solid rim protection against a player who has a few inches on him in Derrick Favors:
However…how is Favors this wide open in the first place? Again, defensive breakdowns all over the place.
5. Jaylen Brown was back and looked great. He said he still had some knee soreness, and could feel it in the fourth quarter. That’s worrisome with a long flight back to Boston and then back-to-back games on the slate for Thursday and Friday. But when he was on the floor, Brown was borderline unstoppable again. He opened the game with a flurry of three-pointers. And you have to love plays like this. He knows Jordan Clarkson can’t check him. Brown blows by Clarkson, takes the hit from Derrick Favors and finishes with the left:
6. It was a real slow start for Jayson Tatum. That put Boston in a bit of a hole they had to climb out of. Once he got it going, he was pretty good. This series of herky-jerky fakes on the drive was gorgeous:
7. The third quarter was a mess for the Celtics and the start of the downfall of the defense. The Jazz dropped 42 points to open up an 11-point lead by the end of the frame. Utah shot 60% from the field, made five threes and went to the line 14 times. If that wasn’t bad enough, they rebounded three of the only eight shots they missed. Boston fought back and made it a game by the middle of the fourth quarter, but the damage was largely done in the third.
8. Daniel Theis is proving to be indispensable. He scored 15 points by virtue of knocking down 5-of-6 three-pointers. He was also a presence defensively, as his ability to switch made it at least passably hard on the Jazz to run their patented pick-and-roll offense. Whatever problems the Celtics may have, Theis is, at most, a small part of them.
9. In relation to the above, Daniel Theis fouled out with 5:23 to play with Boston trailing 104-99. From that point forward, the Celtics were outscored 18-9. The Jazz scored a whopping 14 points over the game’s final 3:04. And they did it with Donovan Mitchell dominating out of pick-and-roll looks. He either dimed up Gobert at the rim or found shooters as he broke down the defense. “Letting go of the rope” has become an overused phrase (guilty here too!), but it’s apt for what happened down the stretch in this one.
10. Once again in relation to the above, the Celtics were angry after the game. Normally, the players and Brad Stevens calmly and measuredly talk about the need to be better, but with an air of confidence it will come.
This time around Stevens, in his disappointed dad way, said the defense “was nowhere near good enough”. He also chastised the team saying it’s “not good enough to be great for 24 minutes against these guys”. Stevens is never going to yell and scream, nor call out players directly, with the media. But you can tell when he’s not happy with his team. This was one of those times.
Jayson Tatum was more pointed and direct about the late-game defense: “We just wasn’t on the same page defensively”.
Jaylen Brown was the most direct of all, when he was asked if the Celtics should take it personally how the Jazz were running it up late: “We (expletive deleted) should take it personally. The fourth quarter was embarrassing. That’s the time when we’re supposed to be our grittiest and it seems like we just fell apart. In a sense, that’s a lack of toughness and that’s a lack of leadership. A lot of that is on me.”
This is a departure from the norm. It feels like everyone is finally to their boiling point with the breakdowns. The question now becomes: Do things boil over and spiral? Or can the Celtics fix it and get things on a roll? The first half of the season has a month left. There are only 72 games this year. It’s starting to get a little late to be saying it’s still early.