The 2021 Celtics are now 20-21. It’s a fitting coincidence, considering the current circumstances of the team and the last year we’re all just trying to get through.
More than halfway through the season, there’s little chance that the team can implement a new offensive system. Boston has very little practice time as is. Tomorrow, they’ll start a five-games-in-seven-nights stretch that takes them out on the road for all of next week. And as daunting as that all sounds, it’s the immediate that needs addressing.
After another disappointing loss to the visiting Sacramento Kings on Friday night, the team didn’t seem worried about the X’s and O’s of Boston’s sputtering offense against the league’s worst defense. There was little concern over another Celtics collapse in crunch time. For head coach Brad Stevens, his focus was on team chemistry and the dynamic in the locker room.
“I think we need to be more engaged in each other. I think that teams are fragile things. Guys are trying--and they’re all really good guys--but sometimes even when you’re giving good effort or you have a group of possessions go really well...five guys engaged does a lot,” Stevens said of his team after coming out of the All-Star break winners of just one of their last five games.
“We just haven’t had that recently. That’s concerning. We have to play as a team. We have to be able to move past a mistake or a missed shot or a missed opportunity or them banking in a shot from 3 and move on and show a great mindset. Show a little resolve and put that together throughout the game. We have not done that. That is clear. Our challenge moving forward is, the only way that happens is that you do it as a team. And so, you gotta get engaged with each other. You gotta fight through these tough times and if you’re not going to do that, there’s going to be more of these tough times.”
In a recent TrueHoop article that discussed COVID-19’s effect on the NBA season, they found that “the Celtics and Mavericks have seen the most time spent in protocol (94 player-days for Boston; 91 player-days for Dallas).” That’s included positive tests for Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, and Carsen Edwards. Tatum has been very public about how the virus has affected his stamina and breathing during games. So, there’s that.
Boston has also been bit by the injury bug. Last night’s game was only the fifth time that their four best players--Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart--have played together all year. But even all that doesn’t excuse what Stevens is seeing on the floor of late.
“The lineup changes, starting lineup, or whatever, it’s gotta be seventeen guys trying to play well together and I think the fun follows that, right?,” Stevens said. “You share it, you dive on the floor, you rebound, you’re tough every single play. When something doesn’t go your way, you tip your cap to the other guy.”
For a team still searching for an identity, it’s those little things, those personal touches that bind them together.
“It’s a lot of small things. For instance, a guy falls down. You want to see everybody go down and pick him up. Someone does something great, you expect to see guys up and cheering. Just small things like that,” Walker said.
After starting out the season 8-3, the Celtics have won just twelve of their last thirty games since Kemba’s return. This rut has even the ever-smiling Walker shook.
“The best I can do is be my upbeat self. I really have been that, I think, over the last couple of games. That’s on me. I know better. Guys look to me. I can’t have nights like that when I’m just not myself,” Walker said after scoring 16 points on 6-for-18 shooting. “Moving forward, I just gotta be better individually, as far as my personality. I gotta be there at all times. And it’s showed. Whenever I’m not upbeat, whenever I’m not bringing that energy, we’re just a whole different team.”
While Walker is the elder statesman of the group, the leadership of this team is centered around Brown and Tatum. And while the young roster suffers through growing pains in their rookie and sophomore seasons, this is also a learning experience for the two young cornerstones.
“My job is just to come out and play basketball and inspire guys to play hard and to compete to win and I haven’t done the best job of that,” Brown said. “That’s something that has been a challenge for me. I accept that challenge. I accepted that challenge at the beginning of the year. So ultimately, I gotta do a better job of being a leader.”
“Right now, we just need to figure it out. Right now, we just need to be better. Right now, we don’t need to give up. We need to fight and put our best foot forward every single day. We owe ourselves that, our families that, the Boston community that. That’s what I’m focused on. I’m also focused on inspiring the guys around me so they feel confident every time they step on the floor and the energy flows a little better than how it has been.”
For those looking at the March 25th trade deadline for a salve to cure Boston’s ills, that doesn’t look likely. These aren’t issues that can be traded away. These are things that need to be played through and learned from.
It’s also likely that the Traded Player Exception that Danny Ainge is sitting won’t be used until the offseason, too. However, there is a sixth man that Boston does plan on adding er soon. After Sunday’s matinee game against a Magic team that just beat the Nets, the Celtics return home on the March 29th and welcome a limited number of fans to the Garden for the first time this year. It’s a seven-game homestand that could ultimately define the season.