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The Celtics are at a crossroads

As Boston confronts a pivotal back-to-back against the Knicks and Cavs, can they overcome inconsistent play and regain their mojo? Or will this season become the cruel opposite of last season?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a serious Celtics fan, are you realistic about your favorite team’s strengths and weaknesses? There’s really no right or wrong approach, but my view is that being rational is a better way to be a fan than dishing out hot takes that have a way of backfiring.

Easier said than done, however. After watching the Celtics not just collapse, but surrender to the Brooklyn Nets, it’s hard to blame anyone for overreacting – especially those who paid big money for tickets.

On Friday night, the Celtics earned their criticism. A dominant first quarter and a 28-point lead in the second quarter gave the C’s the false impression that the game was over. They became too loose and overconfident, taking ill-advised shots and even attempting an alley-oop pass off the backboard, as though they had nothing to lose. Hey, they had beaten Brooklyn 10 straight times. This was sure to be number 11, right?

Nope. From Gary Washburn at the Boston Globe:

The Celtics were hitting shots, but something smelled foul from the beginning. They have the propensity to cheat the game when they have big leads, treating their opponents like the Washington Generals when they feel the game is over. The only thing missing Friday was the bucket of water and Tatum standing at the free throw line calling signals like Geese Ausbie.

Except, the Nets aren’t the Washington Generals. They don’t get paid to get pounded. They’re a prideful team that noticed their opponent was messing around with the game, vulnerable to a big rally, not taking their task seriously.

As explained by the Nets’ Cam Johnson, “There was a point in that first quarter, early second quarter, where we looked at each other and said, ‘We’re not going out this way,’ and it kind of brought us together.”

From the Boston view, “Everything happened so easy there at the beginning of the game,” Derrick White admitted, “and then they just started playing harder.”

Indeed, the Celtics led 51-23 with 7:23 remaining in the second quarter. Brooklyn outscored them 92-54 the rest of the way. And except for White, the Boston players offered little resistance. The Nets, trying to snap a four-game losing streak, took their first lead at 71-70 mid-third quarter and pulled away.

This happens sometimes. In 2019, the Celtics built an identical 28-point second-quarter lead against the Clippers, only to lose by 11. (Easy to remember – unfortunately, I was there.) Brutal, but at that time the C’s were only a hopeful title contender. Now they are supposedly the title favorites – yet it still happens.

Also concerning were the Celtics’ postgame reactions.

“I think this is a one-off, it’s something that’s happened very, very rarely,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “I think it’s very hard for a player to understand that because of the rate at which people play offense, if you have four empty possessions, those can be costly at the other end.”

Very, very rarely? Hard to understand? Hmm.

“They beat us in every analytical category possible,” Mazzulla added. “They got more threes up, they got more shots up, they got more free throws, they got more offensive rebounds, and they turned it over less. You can play as hard as you want, you’re not going to win with that.”

Which begs the follow-up question: did the Celtics play hard enough? Anyone who watched the second and third quarters knows they did not.

Jayson Tatum also seemed to take the problems in stride.

“Disbelief? No. We didn’t play well,” said Tatum. “They played better than we did, usually you lose. So it’s not disbelief. I don’t even know if it’s anger. Played too many games to be angry. Move on, get ready for the next one. It is what it is.”

Those comments are clear indicators that players and coaches don’t think like fans do. We live in different worlds, and it shows. Where we feel frustrated and annoyed, they see a horrible loss as just a bad day at work.

Meanwhile, this situation is playing out against the stark background of last season and the first three months of this season. As we all know, the Celtics were a bad team the first half of 2021-22, then became the league’s best team from February until almost the end of Game 4 versus Golden State.

This season, fueled by their Finals loss, the Cs bolted ahead of the pack early. After a win on January 21, they led the league at 35-12 and were in first place in the East by 4.5 games. Since then, however, they’ve gone 10-7. The Bucks surged past them to the league’s best record by winning 16 straight (although the Sixers broke their streak Saturday night). And we are wondering, can the Celtics respond? Or will this season become the cruel opposite of last season?

It’s a valid topic because the Celtics have lately been erratic. They stole a dramatic win in Philadelphia just a week ago, then the next game had their worst three-point shooting performance of the season. They were able to bounce back with an exciting victory over the Cavs (while almost giving away a 20-point lead!), but then came the meltdown versus Brooklyn.

This win-one, lose-one stumble hasn’t been dramatic, but it has caused some doubt to creep in. Many fans (myself included) now concede that a return trip to the Finals is not inevitable. Every loss pushes the Celts further away from the top seed and crucial postseason home court advantage.

Mazzulla, Coach of the Month to begin the season, no longer looks like a future Coach of the Year. His inconsistent rotations, his reluctance to call timeouts, and his sometimes odd answers to media inquiries are no longer quirks. They’re confounding.

Boston Celtics v Orlando Magic Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Tatum, at one time the NBA’s leading MVP candidate, is now something of a question mark. He’s still averaging 30 points per game, but over his last nine games has been below 20 points four times. If his shot is on, he’ll score 41; if not, he might have just 14. He can also struggle all night but then hit the last-second game-winner.

Tatum is obviously worn down, reflected in his shooting percentage declining every month from October to February. We know he can still carry the team when needed – sometimes. We just don’t know from night to night if he will or won’t. His MVP candidacy is pretty much over.

This isn’t meant to place blame only on Mazzulla and Tatum. Everyone has shared in the successes and failures. But the coach and the face of the franchise need to be better, and set the tone for improvement.

With the rich history of the Boston franchise, there are precedents for all this, of course. One example is the 1982-83 squad, led by Larry Bird. That group was 37-10 in early February, but only 19-16 the rest of the way, due to friction between Coach Bill Fitch and many of the players. It was complicated, but the end of the season was straightforward – and bad. Boston was swept by the Bucks in the second round.

We could also point to 2008, when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce and Boston dominated the regular season with 66 wins – only to almost throw it all away by being forced to seven games in both of the first two rounds. Of course, that year ended happily.

The current Celtics are now at a crossroads. The next two games, a back-to-back versus New York and at Cleveland, might tell us in which direction their title hopes will turn. The Knicks – who beat Boston in New York last Monday – are on fire with eight straight wins.

Less than 24 hours after Sunday’s final buzzer, the Cavs will seek payback for their recent loss in Boston. They trailed by 20 but (unsurprisingly) rallied and lost by just four.

The back-to-back is part of a challenging schedule, made more difficult without Rob Williams at least on Sunday, and on Monday probably without Al Horford, who sits on second nights of consecutive games. Regardless, the Celtics must meet that challenge or put their season at risk.

It’s time for Tatum and the entire roster and staff to remember their mantra: Return to the Finals and relieve the sting of losing. Two wins Sunday and Monday will refresh their mojo; two defeats will make the mood even darker.

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