Over the last two seasons, there have been periods of slow starts, poor third quarters, and inexplicable turnovers. And yet, there was always confidence the team’s firepower would steady the ship. More often than not, the Celtics would rise to the occasion when the chips were down. They were the underdog team who fought hardest with their backs against the wall.
Well, despite their early-season billing as one of the premiere teams in the East, the Celtics are underdogs again. Frankly, the Celtics aren’t as good as we expected. There’s shallow bench depth, struggling stars, and a lack of being “engaged in each other,” as Steven’s put it.
Now, the stage is set for the underdog to rise again.
Against a Sacramento Kings team relying on the play-in tournament for any hope of playoff basketball, that underdog rolled over for a belly rub. Entering the fourth quarter, we saw no snarling faces, heard no growls - guess that dog was neutered.
“We have to play as a team. We have to move past a mistake, or a missed shot or a missed opportunity, or them banking a shot in from three. And move on, show a great mindset, show a little resolve. We have not done that; that is clear.” - Brad Stevens
A sub-par first half performance had been rectified by a resilient Celtics third quarter, allowing the team to enter the final stretch trailing by a single point. Then the fight we had seen throughout the third dissipated again.
Boston’s two star wings combined for an inexcusable 1-for-8 shooting, while Kemba Walker managed to hit three of his eight attempts. So, where did it all go wrong? Offensively, there was a blend of poor shot selection and a lack of urgency.
The above play is indicative of the Celtics’ struggles. An initial dribble-hand-off between Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams provides the big-man with ample room to pull up, but his shot isn’t developed enough for that to be considered a good look.
Williams keeps the play moving side-to-side (a good development over recent weeks) and initiates a second hand-off action on the opposite corner with Jayson Tatum. Harrison Barnes does a great job of absorbing the screen contact and positioning his body to “ice” Tatum, forcing the Celtics star wing to drive towards the hoop.
Tatum recovers a Hassan Whiteside block with the shot clock still ticking, relocates, and jacks up a corner three. An entire 24-second clock spent on a wasted possession. When Tatum saw Whiteside rotate over, could he not of fed the ball back to Williams? Have the Celtics lost faith with baseline cuts when a passing big like Williams has the ball around the elbows? And where was Walker - their most clutch scorer - on this play?
Where was the cerebral execution we’ve come to expect from this team? They were playing scared, getting boxed out, and not fighting for each other.
Coming into the season, a key point of discussion was hierarchy. Gordon Hayward’s departure was supposed to untangle the complicated offensive web of who needs touches on what play. Yet, the team looks more individualistic than ever.
Encouragingly, when they do have a possession where the team is connected, we get plays like this:
A slip screen from Marcus Smart starts the action, causing a momentary delay in Richaun Holmes stepping up to help guard the Walker/Williams pick-and-roll action. Here’s where vertical spacing comes into play—Williams rolling parallel to Walker forces Buddy Hield to dig in from the corner and tag Williams.
As a result, Jaylen Brown is left all alone on the corner. Brown lifts towards the wing for the kick-out pass from Walker, drive, mid-range pull-up, and bucket.
The play had off-ball movement, misdirection (Smart’s slip screen, Williams parallel roll), and intelligent passing. When the Celtics can put that brand of offense on the floor, they’re a challenging proposition for any team. It’s just not consistent enough right now.
Perhaps the amount of puppies, and lack of dogs, is part of the problem. Puppies are easily distracted, hard to train, and you would never trust them to guide you. Dogs, however, are fierce, protective, and can easily lead you home.
Similar showings on defense were also tricky to locate, where the application was lacking, communication missing, and any sense of pride.
With dogs on the floor, you can play connected defense, where every rotation is treated like life-or-death, the type of defense Marcus Smart thrives on providing.
For just shy of 24 seconds, this defensive effort was connected, intense, and well communicated. The team moved in tandem, making it easy to visualize the proverbial string that coaches sometimes use as an analogy.
Then the bank shot happened.
What a tough break that Holmes three was. From there, the effort levels dropped, and the Kings began to find cracks in the armor.
“It’s got to be 17 guys playing together. I think the fun follows that you rebound, dive on the floor, you’ve got to be tough every single way. When something doesn’t go your way, you tip your cap and move on.”
Boston currently holds a 16-25 record in fourth quarters this year. There hasn’t been much tipping of the cap from this roster. Instead, we see the dropping of heads when the chips are down, and it’s time to fight. Playing timid isn’t Celtics basketball. It’s not Brad Stevens basketball, and it goes in the face of everything the Celtics have done over the last 6-7 years.
Losing to the Kings isn’t terrible; losing the two-game series against them isn’t the end of the world, either. But it’s not just losses to West Coast opposition, there have been losses to the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, New York Knicks - the list goes on. There is no disrespect intended towards those teams; they earned their wins against the Celtics, but a contending team is supposed to beat those with eighth seed aspirations.
What’s more concerning, is that right now, the Celtics feel like a team chasing the play-in tournament, too.