The worst part of this 2020-21 season for the Boston Celtics hasn’t been their underwhelming 35-33 record that, as of today, will have them fighting for a playoff spot in the play-in tournament.
It hasn’t been the existential dread of what the next two years of Kemba Walker might look like given his age and attrition and what that means for the Celtics after happily inking him to a $140 million contract nearly two years ago. Nor is it the questions surrounding the youthful second-unit that have only been minimally answered.
Several notable teams have underperformed amid unusual circumstances that include a shortened 72-game season and the ramifications of COVID-19. There’s little shame in the Celtics being among that group through minimal fault of their own, especially when adding in their abridged offseason as reigning Eastern Conference Finals participants.
But there’s a difference between being crushed by the weight of that which you can’t control and digging your own grave. Unfortunately, that is where the true frustration of this chaotic season lies, because every time it looks like the Celtics are about to pull themselves out of the hole, they seem to kick the floor out from underneath them to sink another few feet.
After a middling 3-3 start, Boston won five straight before suffering a 30-point home shellacking at the hands of the New York Knicks. It was a hard loss made softer by the season debut of Kemba. With their full core intact, this was the point for the Celtics to begin establishing themselves as an Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Then there was the blowout loss to the 6-17 Wizards and who could forget the blown 24-point lead in the overtime loss to the Pelicans.
“We kind of got away from what got us the lead, not moving the ball, guarding, and they stormed back,” Jaylen Brown said after that game. “This one definitely hurts. It’s tough. Just a tough loss — a game we 100 percent should have won.”
So how did the Celtics follow up a loss that should’ve riled them up and jolted them to better play? With another two losses, including by 15 to Atlanta.
Sure, Marcus Smart had been out since the one-point loss to the Lakers. Though his absence may have explained several defeats, it could not justify the manner in which they came for a team that fancied itself among the top tier of conference teams.
Things were looking up with four straight victories heading into the All-Star break, including quality W’s over tough outs like the Clippers and Raptors.
Momentum coupled with some time off and a roster closer to full health with Smart’s return would surely right the ship for the season’s second half, right? Nope. Instead, the cat and mouse game Boston had played with its success continued to tease and eventually disappoint the masses.
The second half of the season began with four losses in five games and also saw close home losses to New Orleans and Dallas. Overcoming Denver via a 31-3 run, escaping Portland with a win, and outlasting a Stephen Curry onslaught en route to a six-game winning streak looked like a sign of things to come.
“It’s certainly going in the right direction,” Jayson Tatum said after the Nuggets win. “We still have some things to improve on, but hopefully we can just continue to build off this.”
The Celtics’ improved play was reflected in the standings as they jumped to the No. 4 seed. Less than a month remained in the season, which meant everything was coming into place. Until it wasn’t.
Another four losses in five games immediately followed the feel-good win streak, including a home loss to Chicago, a loss to an injury-plagued Hornets team — the competitive nature of which is not reflective in the final score — and a home loss to an actively tanking OKC Thunder team.
Helping a barren roster snap a 14-game losing streak had to be rock bottom, right? Surely the Celtics, with their playoff fate in the air, would muster some sense of urgency and channel it into their play, no?
There was then a 10-point home loss to the Blazers. After a blowout win in Orlando, Boston lost by 22 to the Bulls and then most recently by six at home to the Heat. But don’t let the final score fool you. In a nationally televised contest against a team fighting to swap places and shove them into the play-in tournament, Boston fell down by as many as 26 in the first half in front of their home fans.
The highlight of these last handful of games was Tatum’s 60 points in an overtime win over San Antonio, which only happened because the Celtics fell behind by 32 points.
“We haven’t been this bad very often. The first half, this was a different level,” Brad Stevens said. “We just have to stay in the moment and figure out how to be better for 48 minutes. That’s it.”
Sixty-eight games through the regular season and they still haven’t found that answer. That alone wouldn’t be so frustrating if there weren’t numerous times when it seemed like they did.