The Good: There were a lot of good things to takeaway from this game. Let’s go through them.
1. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were excellent. They combined for 57 points on 24-of-45 from the floor. They both weren’t afraid to challenge Rudy Gobert, as each showed off a couple of nice floaters in the paint. As per usual, these two weren’t the problem for Boston.
2. Daniel Theis and Robert Williams combined for a nice game at center. Tristan Thompson was unavailable for the game. That allowed for a 26-22 minutes split for Theis and Williams they both seemed to find a really nice rhythm. Brad Stevens has said he intends to play only one big at a time moving forward. Finding enough minutes to keep all three players engaged could be difficult.
3. Kemba Walker looks like himself again. This may be the last time we mention this, as Walker is clearly back. He won’t play the second game of back-to-backs, and that’s fine. If this is the production level the Celtics can expect moving forward, they’ll take it.
4. The first quarter defense was some of the best Boston has played all season. They were all over the place to force turnovers and to contest shots. Had it continued, the Celtics might have rolled to a victory.
The Bad: There wasn’t as much bad as it may seem, but what was bad, was really bad.
1. The defense in quarters two through four was not good. Utah shot 50% from the field overall and just under 50% from three during those periods. It was either shots at the rim or three-pointers that entire time. Boston’s ball pressure dropped off considerably as well.
The Jazz move the ball better than most teams, but the Celtics help just wasn’t there. They did a poor job of helping the helper. The first rotation was generally fine. Second and third? Rarely present.
2. Boston is now the worst fourth quarter team in the league. They are -82 in point differential in the final period and have an NBA-worst defensive rating of 117 to close the game. We all know the offense has a tendency to let games become a walk-it-up slog, but the defense is just as bad. That shouldn’t be a thing with the talent this team has among its primary closers.
3. The Celtics reserves were awful, outside of Robert Williams. Marcus Smart shot horribly and took two really bad jumpers late in the game. One came with his foot on the arc and the other was early in the shot-clock. The rest just sort of ate up minutes without making any sort of positive impact.
Utah’s bench is one of the better ones in the league. Jordan Clarkson may win Sixth Man of the Year, Joe Ingles is very good and Derrick Favors and Georges Niang simply play their roles. The difference in the game was Utah having quality NBA rotation players 1-9 and Boston only going about six or seven deep.
4. We’ll keep this one short, but a 24-4 free throw disparity is ridiculous. Especially when Boston was going inside pretty regularly. Even if you take out a couple of giveaway fouls at the end, the margin was 20-4. That’s comically unbalanced officiating.
The Ugly: Just one thought here, but it’s an important one.
1. This game, and the Brooklyn game last week, confirmed that Boston is close. They can hang with the best teams in the league, but they can’t quite get over the hump. The Celtics are now 0-8 against the NBA’s five best teams. Almost all of those loses were close games too. So, it’s right there to compete with the best, but remains just out of reach.
Why is this ugly? Because it shows that the 2020-21 Boston Celtics have a direction problem. We’ve heard this team is contending and we’ve heard this team is in the midst of a soft re-set and focused on development. Where does that leave you? 20-19 on the season.
If the Celtics are contending, and they really aren’t that far off the best teams (despite the poor record), they need to make a trade. It’s time to package the kids and picks and go get help for the main core. The team owes that to them. They are that good and that ready to win. They’ve proven it over and over.
If the Celtics are developing, then Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens need to have a difficult conversation. No, this isn’t about tanking. Boston won’t tank. For one, they’ve already won far too much for that to be successful. More importantly: that would send a terrible message to guys like Tatum, Brown, Walker and others. You can’t punt a year of their careers, especially midseason. Lastly, Stevens won’t tank. He’s made that clear from his first day as head coach. Plus, coaches and players don’t tank, organizations do.
But if this season is about development, then Ainge should be telling Stevens that he has to play Payton Pritchard over Jeff Teague. Romeo Langford (assuming he’s ever available) and Aaron Nesmith should play over Semi Ojeleye. Robert Williams has to play more than Tristan Thompson, even recognizing the team is being cautious with Williams. No more random games where Javonte Green plays 30 minutes. Grant Williams should play when guys are out or there is foul trouble up front.
None of those moves is a tanking move, because none of those younger players is any sort of major downgrade from the guys in front of them. There might be a couple more mistakes per game. It could even cost the Celtics a game here and there, but long-term it would be worth it.
If Stevens disagrees, Ainge could pull a chapter out of Billy Beane’s book. The movie version of Moneyball got a little silly about it, but when Oakland A’s manager Art Howe wouldn’t play the players Beane wanted in the lineup, Beane traded the guys Howe preferred. That left him no choice but to play Beane’s preferences.
Ainge can fairly easily force Stevens’ hand here.
It probably doesn’t have to come to any sort of extreme measures. Boston won’t tank. Ainge doesn’t have to trade away Stevens’ binkies. And the Celtics aren’t making any sort of superstar deal either. It’s just about coming together to pick a direction.
If it’s contention, make a move or two and shore up the rotation. If it’s development, focus on getting the kids more minutes. Otherwise, the entire 2020-21 season will be a waste. The team will be good, but not good enough, and the youngsters won’t develop enough to help get the Celtics over the hump anytime soon.
It’s time to pick a direction before it’s too late. Getting stuck in the middle is a road to nowhere.