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Not good enough: One Takeaway from Celtics/Pistons

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Boston continues to hover just above .500 after losing another winnable game

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

1. Jaylen Brown heaved a deep, long sigh and said “We just gotta be better.”

That alone said it all.

Brown and Jayson Tatum showed up against the Detroit Pistons. They combined for 60 points. Tatum also added 11 rebounds and seven assists. As per usual, they were great. The duo proved once again, they’re ready to compete for a title. The rest of the Celtics? Not so much.

Yes, Kemba Walker was out (injury management on the back-to-back) and Marcus Smart is still out. Robert Williams also missed the game. And Romeo Langford remains out until sometime after the All-Star break. But there isn’t a team in the NBA that isn’t missing players. Whether they be key role players, important starters or stars, everyone is going through it. That can’t be an excuse for Boston anymore.

The Pistons have played the best teams in the league tough. It’s a weird dichotomy. They are awful, but have beat several of the top teams. That said, the Celtics should have won this game.

The issue for Boston is that there are only a few knowns right now:

· Tatum and Brown will be good to great almost every night

· Daniel Theis will put in an unsung effort

· Payton Pritchard will make an impact one way or another

That’s it. Walker is a question mark. Smart is seemingly always dealing with at least a minor injury. The bench is full of young players whose only consistency is inconsistency.

That’s not good enough.

After most games, we hear Brad Stevens say he’s more encouraged than discouraged. Not this time. Stevens didn’t call anyone out. He didn’t rant and rave. That’s not who he is, and anyone expecting that should have learned that lesson long ago. But you can tell when he’s frustrated. When he stops building up the good things and focuses on the negatives, it’s clear he’s not happy. Friday night he praised the effort, but called out the lack of ball movement and intensity early in the game.

Jaylen Brown is usually positive and upbeat, even following a loss. This time around, he seemed worn down and defeated. Jayson Tatum is very even-keeled and even he seemed discouraged and searching for answers.

Brown and Tatum played 36 and 41 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back, while in the midst of a five-games-in-seven-days stretch. If you make that sort of investment in minutes, you have to win. All things considered, this was the worst loss of the season for Boston.

It’s no wonder Brown and Tatum seem frustrated.

Where does this leave the Celtics? About where they have been all season long: in the middle of the pack as a slightly above-average team.

That’s not good enough.

We’ve spent four seasons believing next year would be the year. In 2018, the run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals happened without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Just wait till next year!

2019 finished with an unhappy team led by Irving, who was out the door before the final buzzer in the second round. Just wait till next year when the team is happier and roles are defined!

2020 wrapped in the bubble with Hayward playing when he clearly wasn’t ready, but Boston was right there anyway. Just wait till next year when everyone is healthy!

Now? Hayward is gone. He joined Irving and Al Horford before him. Valuable role players like Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris moved on. In their places? The fruit of half-a-decade of extra first round draft picks. Right now, it looks like all of that fruit, minus Brown and Tatum, was selected far before it was ripe. Now, that fruit sits on the bench waiting to ripen, much like a bunch of bananas.

You know what happens to a lot of those bananas? They turn bad and get tossed before you can enjoy them.

That’s not good enough.

When Danny Ainge didn’t go all in to supplement the surprising, gritty Isaiah Thomas-led teams by trading the Brooklyn picks, it was understandable. It was clear those picks had a chance to be gold. And they were. Brown and Tatum are franchise cornerstones.

The rest of the extra picks? One was trading for Kyrie Irving. Even with how it worked out, that was still the right move at the time. The Kings and Grizzlies picks? Both franchises were better than expected and delivered the last pick in the lottery. That started the issues. Romeo Langford has spent two seasons injured and Aaron Nesmith can’t get off the bench, even when Boston is down players.

That’s not good enough.

Even the extra pick from the Bucks (via the Suns) cost the Celtics Aron Baynes and Matisse Thybulle. Then, that extra pick was used to dump salary and turned into Desmond Bane, who looks like at least a solid wing shooter for Memphis.

That’s not good enough.

When you watch the Celtics now, you know Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will show up. Daniel Theis will do his thing. Payton Pritchard will probably be solid. Everything else is hope, both for individual games and the long-term.

We hope Kemba Walker will return to form. We hope Tristan Thompson will look like the guy who used to dominate Boston on the glass. We hope Marcus Smart will make it more than a week or two without getting hurt. Mostly, we hope the kids will show more than just the occasional flash.

Remember the bananas? That’s what Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Grant Williams and Robert Williams are. All were plucked a bit too early. All are sitting on the counter, hoping they’ll ripen soon. And all are starting to develop some bad spots.

Langford can’t get healthy. Nesmith can’t get off the bench. Grant Williams looks good for a week, then goes missing for a month. Robert Williams tantalizes with potential, then looks lost, finds himself and promptly gets hurt.

Each one of those players was a first-round draft pick. Each one of those players was a significant investment. Each one of those players now has less value than they did when they were drafted.

That’s not good enough.

It sounds weird that a team led by a 24 and 22-year-old has a window that seems like it less-open than it should be. Yet, here we are. Brown and Tatum are great. But great players eventually get frustrated when they can’t win. That eventually leads to asking for changes. Either around them or, in the end, for them themselves.

Brown’s extension just started this year. Tatum’s doesn’t even start until next season. Yet, Boston is on the clock with both players. If the Celtics aren’t real title contenders soon, we’ll hear murmurs of wanting to go elsewhere. It’s a sad reality of life in the NBA. No one stays where they don’t believe they can win. That’s what Boston is facing with Brown and Tatum.

That’s not good enough.

There are ways out of this, but they involve parting with some of the precious bananas before they spoil entirely. If they ripen elsewhere, so be it. It also might even mean moving on from some future bananas too. And it’s going to mean spending a lot of money. Ownership has always said the tax isn’t an impediment, if the team is a title contender. It’s time to hold them to that.

The trade exception has to be used. Not today. Not in the next week. But in the next few weeks, teams will fall out of the race and become sellers. It’s imperative that Boston is there to buy when they do. Yes, it will be expensive. Yes, it will be worth it.

Otherwise, the message is sent: Continue to be patient and hope for the best.

That’s not good enough.