With ten games left in the 2022-2023 regular season, the Celtics are 49-32 and third in the East, percentage points behind the 76ers and two and a half games back of the Bucks with a game against each to close out the regular season. There’s time and opportunity to make up the difference, but pick up a paper or log on to Twitter and you’d think we were re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than jockeying for playoff position.
The “what’s wrong with the Celtics” conversation is valid. The offense that rocketed them up to historic heights to start the season has expectedly fallen to earth. The defense that carried them last year and been very good this year has cratered since the Jays and Joe Mazzulla & Co. were lighting up All-Star Weekend. They’ve been depressingly average in March with 2.0 net rating (115.9 offensive rating, 113.9 defensive rating) and as often as they’ve looked like the best version of themselves, they’ve also looked like a walking brain fart far too often.
The good news is they’ve lost four games by a combined nine points. Heartbreakers for sure, but considering the fabric of an 82-game season, they’re just loose ends in an otherwise successful year. The bad news is the way they’ve been losing. Against the Nets, a 28-point second quarter lead was relinquished by midway through the third and they never responded against a Brooklyn team now without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The Celtics had wrapped their arms around a win against the Knicks in overtime only to cough it up in the second OT. Boston had significant leads in Cleveland and Salt Lake City in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t close it out in the clutch.
Head coach Joe Mazzulla has wavered between “I should have played Derrick White more” and “we didn’t execute,” between some version of “you have to lose to learn to win” and crediting the opposing team. The tough losses haven’t exactly galvanized the team and the fan base, and there might be some lingering questions before spring comes around — mainly, will the Celtics continue to start White and predominantly play small or will Robert Williams return to the starting lineup — but ladies and gentlemen, these are your Boston Celtics.
The trade deadline has passed. President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens still has a 15th roster spot to fill before the playoffs, but if last season is any indication, that will most likely be filled by a G-League call up rather than some ring-chasing veteran. So much handwringing has been made of who starts, who closes, and who plays at all. It doesn’t help that players like Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard who played large roles in last year’s Finals run have been in and out of the rotation.
There will always be second-guessing after a loss. Every Monday morning quarterback is going to choose the road untraveled when it comes to what Mazzulla should have done down the stretch and with the team just a game over .500 since the break, some might even question not just the game plan, but the full season plan from the beginning.
Against the Jazz, Jayson Tatum became the first player this season to cross the 2000-point mark. It’s a worthy accomplishment for an MVP candidate, but that also means that he’s put on a lot of mileage on the odometer. Last year, he clocked in at 2,731 minutes to close 2021-2022 and was admittedly exhausted by the Finals after back-to-back seven-game series against the Bucks and Heat. He has ticked over 2508 already, but including yesterday’s day off before the Kings tomorrow night, Boston plays just one game in six days before a manageable two-game homestand this weekend. It’s as much a needed physical rest as it is a mental break after a 7-6 stretch since the All-Star break.
Yes, there are going to be games when they give up a bunch of offensive rebounds. Six times this season including Saturday night on the second night of a back-to-back in Utah without Al Horford and Robert Williams, the Celtics gave up fifteen or more offensive boards; they’re 2-4 in those games. But let’s not forget that Boston is the best defensive rebounding team in the league. That’s worth repeating: Boston is the best defensive rebounding team in the league. They’ve played small. They’ve played big. All year, rebounding hasn’t been an issue.
Here’s the topic du jour: the high variance with the three-point shooting could bite them in the a%& come playoff time. Nine times this year, they’ve hit under 28% of their threes and loss 7 of 9 of those games. And for what it’s worth, that comes out to nearly a game in a seven-game series. So yeah, that could happen. Depending on how the next few weeks shake out, it’s conceivable that the Celtics could start the second round and beyond on the road with the very real prospect of playing Game 7 at Wells Fargo or Fiserv Forum. They might even throw away a game at home if the rims at TD Garden or the leprechaun that lives there doesn’t cooperate.
The fact of the matter is, this is how the team is built and frankly, it’s looking more and more like the playoffs, particularly in the East, are going to be a clash of styles. Even if they start with two bigs, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are matchup nightmares. If the last three weeks have made you squeamish about trying to outshoot teams and rely on smaller defenders guarding up against bigger opponents, get used to it.
They shoot a lot of threes and on many nights, they’re going to need to rely on their defense when their shots aren’t falling. They’re going to switch a lot on defense and self-inflict unfavorable matchups on themselves. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are going to make and miss a bunch of shots and oftentimes, they’ll need that third or fourth or fifth scorer to make up the difference and we just don’t know who that is. And in the playoffs when rotations shrink, their depth and versatility will raise more questions than answers. That’s part of it, too.
These are your Boston Celtics.