What are we even doing?
It’s never fun to lose a basketball game, but it’s even less fun when that game leaves you wondering what the heck the Celtics were even trying to do with their lives…
…and that’s about as far as I got. I started writing the intro to this article with just under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, with the Celtics down 14 and with a 99.8 percent chance of losing according to ESPN Analytics. Generally, when one of the teams has less than half a percent chance of victory, I feel fine starting a column.
But the Celtics must have taken offense to my actions, because they stormed back, cutting the lead to three and had a chance to force overtime on a Kristaps Porzingis last-second miss. I almost deleted that intro, but then the Celtics lost anyway.
And because I watched the entire game, which for 46 minutes consisted of somewhat-sketchy to downright uninspired Celtics basketball, I refuse to overreact to a two-minute stretch of glory. Yes, the Celtics began making open shots, running in transition, and playing actually-good defense that saw a 90-second, 13-2 run nearly eliminate an entire game of lameness.
Because except for that run, much of the game begged the question I came up with at the two-minute mark: what are we even doing? That’s a pretty broad question, so I’m going to break it down into some subsidiary what-are-we-even-doings, before tying it up with a sad, dejected bow.
1. What was Jayson Tatum even doing?
In a rivalry game—and yes, Celtics-76ers is a true rivalry—it is plainly unacceptable to mail in a pedestrian 16 points immediately after being named Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Tatum was unable to assert his will on offense, often spinning into double teams or finding finishing angles clogged by the ever-present arms of Joel Embiid.
Tatum also dusted off by far the worst move in his bag: the throw-your-hands-in-the-air-in-disbelief-that-you-didn’t-just-get-a-call. He often turns to complaining about officiating when he is frustrated offensively, but that just compounds the problem. Whenever I see Tatum’s arms in the air, I know it won’t be an easy game.
The 76ers also employed a zone defense, forcing him to give up the ball to open shooters who were struggling to hit the broadside of a French bakery all night. 76ers coach Nick Nurse also presumably employed a zone to prevent Tatum from isolating smaller defenders and obliterating them from the triple threat. That’s been his calling card all season, and it was tough to find an alternate rhythm.
2. What was Jaylen Brown even doing?
Brown was a big part of that late run, but that’s just about all that salvaged a truly abysmal night. He looked lost all over the court, launching brick after brick and not making quick enough decisions with and off the ball or on defense. He was routinely exposed by Tyrese Maxey, who dominated the second half with relentless offensive conviction.
As I’ve said many times, Brown’s weaknesses aren’t necessarily that much worse than those of other comparable stars, but the way he makes mistakes is so visually unappealing that it feels ten times worse than it actually is. Exhibit A:
In the fourth quarter, Jaylen found himself dribbling the ball across midcourt, staring aimlessly at Derrick White, who was filling the lane to his left. It was pretty obvious something was about to go wrong, because Brown’s eyes were glazed over, unable or unwilling to be decisive crossing half court. And wouldn’t you know it, he lost the ball, giving up a crucial fast-break bucket.
Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but... it looked really bad. I guess optics make emotions, and let’s just say I wasn't vibing with Jaylen’s play last night.
3. What is Payton Pritchard even doing?
With how the Celtics’ offseason panned out, the four-year, $30 million deal that Pritchard inked felt totally defensible. The Celtics traded their third guard to build the super-ultra-mega backcourt of Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, so locking down Pritchard felt like a solid idea.
But maybe there was a reason Pritchard was unplayable last year, because man is he struggling. Since smoking the Pacers like a rack of spare ribs, Pritchard has unironically shot 0-11 from the field, scoring zero points total in the last three games.
That cannot continue. Much has been made of the Celtics’ elite starting lineup, but holy mackerel has the bench been inconsistent. Sam Hauser—along with some Oshae Brissett flashes—has been serviceable, taking some pressure off Tatum and Brown as a backup wing, but Pritchard and Luke Kornet have been completely unplayable.
Every minute either guy has been on the court since the Pacers game, it feels like nothing productive is going to happen. I don’t expect a lot out of Luke Kornet, and the Celtics have some flexibility with bigs and small lineups. But Pritchard has to get it together, otherwise the Celtics will have to look elsewhere for depth.
4. Finally, what are we even going to do?
I watch enough sports to know what happens when a team starts out hot, beating up on inferior teams and then dropping a pair to actual contenders. In the next few days, various members of the media will call the Celtics “frauds.”
I just want everyone to prepare themselves for that. “Frauds” is a particularly negative thing to call somebody, but it is worth wondering how the Celtics will handle great players on the other side of the ball, now having struggled in back-to-back contests against Anthony Edwards and the Embiid-Maxey combo meal.
For now, it’s onto Brooklyn to start out the In-Season Tournament on Friday. Hopefully, I’ll at least have an idea of what we’re even doing by then.