You know those movies where the hero has a nightmare about being unable to save a friend or partner? You can picture the scene: the ground turns into a mountain, or a couple of feet becomes miles. Yeah, well, that’s the Boston Celtics’ season in a nutshell. No matter how close they have come to full health or creating a rhythm, the darn rug gets pulled from under them every time.
Keeping with the movie analogy for a moment, the hero finally gets to their destination, exhausted and disenchanted. Still, you’re like, “yeah! they finally got there. It’s about to get real,” only for the person in jeopardy to turn into a dragon or something equally as nuts. Exactly! The Celtics finally make the playoffs and BOOM, here comes the Brooklyn Nets, the proverbial dragon.
Here’s where the narrative becomes more like Kickass rather than Avengers. The Celtics entered Game 1 with the belief of a young Dave Lizewski, on his first vigilante expedition, then the Nets show up, allow the Celtics to get a couple of good punches in before turning the pressure up. Brooklyn is a basketball juggernaut, and Boston is its appetizer.
It’s true. The Celtics are outgunned, outmatched, and quite frankly outclassed in this current series. But, it’s in those dark moments, where everything you try doesn’t bear fruit, that you’re most significant weaknesses are laid bare. But there’s value in that.
Lizewski learned that his fighting abilities were subpar at best, so he enlisted the help of Hit-Girl. The Celtics are quickly learning that having some of the most talented play finishers in the game means very little if you don’t have players to initiate those plays. You can’t finish what hasn’t been started.
We’ve all been guilty of bemoaning the team’s heavy reliance on isolation basketball this season, but in reality, it’s all they have. Take a look at the guard rotation: Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Payton Pritchard, Marcus Smart. Only one of those guards can be coined a playmaker, and that’s Smart, the guy whose most significant attribute is actually his defense.
Beyond Smart, the remaining guards can create their own shots to some degree, yet they don’t scream floor general. It’s the same with Jayson Tatum, a young wing with transcendent scoring abilities, but he’s only at the beginning of his point-forward journey. Too much creation has been placed on Tatum’s shoulders this season, and while that bodes well for the future, it doesn’t help in the present.
Beyond Jayson Tatum, the team’s best chance at creating scoring opportunities is the ever-impressive Robert Williams. With the big man in the lineup, the Celtics can diversify their offensive approach, allowing Williams to quarterback the offense from delay sets, short-rolls, or occupying space around the mid-range. But, Williams is carrying the effects of a turf toe. As such, his minutes require close management — the story of the Celtics season.
The issue of playmaking is a very fixable one in the offseason. But right now, for this series, it’s going to be a prime factor in the Celtics being sent home. Not the primary factor, because that’s just how good the Nets are, but a prime factor nonetheless.
Am I saying the Celtics should raise the white flag and surrender in front of their own fans at TD Garden this weekend? No, of course not. If you’re going to go down, you go down swinging. But I am saying that maybe we should loosen the reins a little on some of these “building blocks” to see what’s really under the hood.
If we’re being real with ourselves, the best scenario for the Celtics will be to win two of the next four games. Only in fantasy land are they making it through to the second round. So, why not start playing to your younger guys’ strengths?
Against the Chicago Bulls on April 21st, Stevens played Romeo Langford as the primary ball-handler and then said postgame that’s where he envisions the sophomore wing playing long term.
“I don’t know if that’s in his wheelhouse yet, but he has to get to that point with his size and ability to pass the ball. We’re going to avoid it as much as we can right now, obviously, because he’s not used to it. He hasn’t played enough games to orchestrate and organize a group.”
What better time to pressure test a player’s raw ability than in the playoffs, where all that’s required is to hustle your butt off? Surely, if Stevens isn’t going to Payton Pritchard off the bench (he’s averaging 10 minutes so far this series), there can be no harm in forcing some development from Langford? Because if you envision him as a guard but won’t play him there, what are we even doing?
The arguments are similar for Aaron Nesmith. We know the rookie is an exceptional shooter but rarely see it in action because his shot profile is being miscast. Nesmith is a movement shooter, playing as a spot-up option. Rather than watching Nesmith lift off pin downs or curl round stagger screens, we see him operating in the corners or on the wing, spotting up and occasionally attacking a close out. That’s not the rookie’s game. Moreover, his movement would generate more opportunities for others if Stevens just let the shooter shoot: volume creates gravity.
Pritchard has been another shining light of hope this season, but his minutes have primarily come at the two rather than the point. So, if the three young players are seen to be part of Boston’s long-term future, shouldn’t they be getting all the minutes possible against Brooklyn’s bench?
Of course, these ideas can only be accepted if you truly believe the Celtics are a foregone conclusion for an early vacation this season. Heck, if David had to beat Goliath four out of seven times, that story doesn’t end the same way. So why not embrace the inevitable and attack with reckless abandon based on youthful exuberance.
“Sometimes you’re so young you just don’t know any better. You think to yourself, ‘I’m just gonna go out there and ball out, and who can tell me otherwise?,” Matt Barnes explained when discussing Ja Morant’s antics in Game 1 of the Memphis Grizzlies playoffs. But, Barnes’ quote holds true for the Celtics younger core, too; they’re just too young to accept they’re supposed to lose.
This season may not have started with an agenda of internal development, but that’s no reason not to end it with one. It’s time Stevens faces the facts, that some of these young rotation players are the team’s future, and the one’s that aren’t need to rebuild some value. So stop trying to win a battle where the landscape is setup for you to fail, and start playing the long game.