Before tip off in Chicago in a game that Boston would eventually lose to the Bulls in a rout 121-99, Brad Stevens was very candid about his feelings about the state of the team and the season. Before complimenting former Celtics Daniel Theis and Javonte Green and their positive impact on the team on and off the floor, Stevens said, “we’ve had a good locker room with everyone that’s been in our locker room this year. We haven’t always been a great basketball team. We’ve had our issues, but the character of the people in the locker room has not been it. It’s a good group of guys. They compete. They play together. They care about each other. They’re accountable when things don’t go well. They’re easy to coach. All that good stuff.”
It was a candid assessment of where the team is at and if you’re an optimist, where they could be for the rest of the month and maybe June and maybe even July and well into next season. For fans of Stevens and even his critics, it was also a window into how Stevens feels about his eighth — and arguably his most difficult — season in Boston. After reportedly being courted by Indiana University to return to the college ranks, Stevens has emphatically affirmed his commitment to the franchise and more importantly, to his players.
Danny Ainge has echoed those sentiments. He likes the team, he likes the players, and he believes there’s a run in them yet. When healthy, we’ve seen their potential, too.
There will be naysayers who won't credit the Celtics for the strides they've made this year. There always are. They often have radio shows and commercials to sell and little use for subtlety, context, and reason. They won't consider the rise of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to stardom. They'll undersell Kemba Walker's return and even blame him for not playing in back-to-backs when it was that calculated recovery plan from knee surgery that helped get him to this point. They won't credit Ainge for replacing Gordon Hayward with Evan Fournier because the trade machine said grabbing Aaron Gordon instead was possible.
Yes, the team has its issues. All those positives haven’t added up in the regular season into anything resembling a championship team. And after slow starts all but buried Boston in a crucial mini-series against the Miami Heat, Stevens tried to shoulder the blame and shield his players from any criticism. The defense hasn’t been on the level of past Stevens’ squads and the offense doesn’t come close to those less talented rosters that always were greater than the sum of their parts.
There was a natural expectation that eventually, the Celtics would get over the hump in the last few years. Three trips to the conference finals in four years — despite the fact that Team 2016-17 looks absolutely nothing like Team 2020-21 — will do that. That should speak more to those teams’ successes rather than this team’s inability to live up to them, but that’s what happens when you’re consistently overachieving. Raise the bar every year and at some point, people are going to want to see you jump over it.
For all the silver linings, Boston still finished the season a middling .500. The injuries have played a part for sure. The roster is constructed of nearly two-thirds of their players on rookie contracts and this compacted season has offered little time for practice and an adjustment period. However, the biggest issue is what’s been affecting all of us for the last fourteen months and counting.
The regular season will end Sunday and the Celtics will finish the year as by far the hardest hit NBA team to lose games to the league’s COVID health and safety protocols. And that’s not just about being careful and cautious with contact tracing and social distancing. Six rotation players — Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Tristan Thompson, Evan Fournier, Robert Williams, and Romeo Lanford — have all contracted the coronavirus and are still suffering lingering symptoms to varying degrees.
The long term physical effects of COVID-19 are largely unknown, but we know what it takes away in the immediate. It steals away time, precious time away from your family, your work, your livelihood, your everything. It’s unforgiving in its scope and scale.
“It’s been a tough year for everybody, not just us. We definitely had a tough year, but it’s been a tough year for basketball in general, for people who don’t play basketball. For the whole world, it’s been tough,” Kemba Walker said.
This is not meant to equate the loss and pain so many families have suffered during the pandemic to the inconsistencies of what happens on basketball court, but only to suggest that the last fourteen months have taken its toll on all of us, including millionaires whose jobs are to put a ball through a hoop.
They are not frontline healthcare workers. They are not teachers. They are not you and me. But for many of us, they are a source of joy and positivity. None of us have been at our best over the last fourteen months, but there have been moments when we’ve risen to the challenges and those sometimes little victories have meant so much in a year when treading water was winning.
Instead of pointing fingers and assigning blame, let’s rally together. If you missed the Riffs Man’s The People’s Tommy Point Charity Drive for 18 for Marcus Smart’s YounGameChanger Foundation, it was a shining example of what our community can do together for good. Instead of already making plans for the offseason, let’s look forward to a postseason that hasn’t even played out yet. As Weird Celtics Twitter has taught me anything over the last few years, it’s that vibes matter.
If nothing else, afford the team the same leeway that we’ve given ourselves during these troubling times. In a way, seeing how critical we’ve been of the team is some (unfortunate) sign that things are getting back to normal, but if so, let’s be better than normal. This band of brothers deserve that.