Zoom into any basketball season and you’ll find its warts. Zoom in closer. A 3-7 record in the last ten games. Zoom in even closer. A three-game losing streak. Even closer. Getting outscored 65-36 to close out a game. Succumbing to two miracle shots to lose at the buzzer. Giving up 23-for-42 three-point shooting in a blowout.
Maybe there’s hope that if you look at the big picture, it’s just a blip, a frayed stitch in the fabric of a good year. No. The Celtics are 15-17 and right now, are on the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff picture after another demoralizing loss to the Hawks 127-112 in Atlanta.
There are, of course, mitigating factors. There are COVID-19 issues that every team is facing: a shortened training camp, the truncated schedule, the constant testing, no practices, and no fans in the stands. There are Celtics-specific ones, too: the loss of Marcus Smart, the rough return of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and two teammates contracting the coronavirus, and the youth of the roster. But even with all things considered, the team hasn’t shown up every night. Fans can excuse some losses, but not without effort and concentration.
“I can tell--whatever the mental focus is--is not there. It’s not enough. It’s almost as if it’s like, I don’t know, but it just isn’t there,” Jaylen Brown said after the Celtics gave up the most three-pointers to an opponent ever.
On Tuesday, Brown and Tatum were selected as Eastern Conference All-Star reserves and while that individual recognition is an honor, they both recognize that their success will be measured with how well the Celtics do. After being key members of teams that have been to three out of the last four conference finals and now representing Boston as the cornerstones of the franchise, they understand the pressures of building a winning culture with the Celtics.
“I have to take accountability...I have to be better. I have to be more vocal. I have to be the example. I take a lot of accountability just the way we played today and the way we’ve been playing,” Tatum said.
“As long as you’ve got that Celtics jersey on, you should never be comfortable with losing...it just sucks for me personally. We should all as a group just take that challenge,” Brown said.
"We have 4 games until the break. 4 very important games. I think the time is now." - Jayson Tatum pic.twitter.com/Y5KWzzsDJy— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) February 25, 2021
Zoom out even further. The Celtics still have the second half of the season to go and more immediately, a four-game homestand to right the ship before the All-Star break.
“We got four games till the break. Four very important games because I think the time is now. Like I said earlier, we don’t have any time to relax. We gotta dig deep,” Tatum said.
Brad Stevens reiterated the urgency of getting right back home, saying, “These next four games will tell us a lot about where we can go.”
Brad Stevens was asked if he should take a different tone with his team in the locker room after their recent struggles. pic.twitter.com/o75UYpkvMs— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) February 25, 2021
However, it’s not exactly smooth sailing after roughing stormy waters on the road. Starting Friday, the Celtics will host the Pacers who are currently the #4 seed at 15-15, the Wizards who crushed them just two weeks ago, a Clippers squad seeking revenge, and the division rival Raptors who have won four out of their last six games.
“This is an unforgiving league. The moment you have issues, people are trying to take advantage of it and they’ll do it over and over and over and over,” Stevens said.
After boasting a top-ten offense and defense earlier in the year, the Celtics have slipped to 15th and 16th respectively and they’re 27th in the league in 4th quarter net rating.
“This team...it’s balancing playing uncofidently and unsure with the fact that we’ve had a couple that slipped away,” Stevens said. “The only way I know to get that back is to dive on the floor, take charges, sprint to help your teammates up, and fight every single possession.”