Now, much like the Celtics themselves, it feels like this version is going to be flat, asking a lot of questions and waiting on answers that aren’t going to come.
At this point of the season, and this team’s arc, it’s unfathomable how they can admittedly play a playoff game with no energy. Yet here we are. And this isn’t one of those “feeling” things either. Joe Mazzulla and multiple players said the direct words themselves following the game.
The weird thing is that the crowd could tell right from tip-off. That was one of the worst home crowds the Celtics have played in front of in a long time. There was no life, and the team gave them no reason to stand and cheer. Most of the game was played with the uneasy tension of sitting outside of the principal’s office when you knew you were in trouble, but they just have told you how much trouble yet.
This situation isn’t different in terms of the series standings than last year’s second round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics are down 3-2 and headed on the road. The Sixers can close it out and exorcise some playoff demons at home in Philadelphia.
Last year, Boston put together a big Game 6 in Milwaukee, behind an all-time performance from Jayson Tatum. Then Game 7 was a blowout back in Boston. So, we’ve all been here before.
Yet, this doesn’t feel the same. Even down, that team had an edge and a feeling about them that this particular group just doesn’t have. Some of that is the difference from Ime Udoka to Joe Mazzulla, but that’s just a part of it. The players aren’t playing the same way either, and it’s not all just motivation, or lack thereof, from the sidelines.
This group has had a hangdog feel about them since about the quarter-mark of the season. The play has been uneven, and the motivation, effort and energy all come and go. Thus far, they’ve been able to pull it together when needed and, boy, do they need to now.
Keeping it on the court, this team has slipped significantly defensively from a year ago. It’s not just the numbers, as defense has slipped all across the league this season. But last year’s team controlled the game on the defensive end. They played with an intimidating ferociousness.
This group just doesn’t have it that persona.
By the end of the 2022 NBA Finals, it was clear the Celtics needed to get better on offense. But the moves made (in additions and lineup/scheme changes), took away some of what made Boston special.
It’s not that Malcolm Brogdon or Derrick White are bad players. Not even close. But having both of them made the team a little guard-heavy. That, combined with Rob Williams’ continued absences, saw Mazzulla go to more one-big lineups. In order to play their best eight players, there just aren’t a lot of minutes for double-big groups to be on the floor.
The offense got better. But it hasn’t gotten enough better to offset the slip defensively. And despite being the top defensive rebounding team in the NBA in the regular season, the Celtics have struggled mightily on the boards in the playoffs. They just aren’t the same as a year ago.
Sometimes when you plug one hole, which adding Brogdon and a full season of White have done, you take away from what made you special in the first place.
But it’s more than that.
By the end of the regular season, last year’s Celtics played with an edge and togetherness that made them tougher than their opponents. They knocked you down and relished it. If you knocked a Celtic down, four other Celtics shoved you aside to pick up their teammate.
In the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Celtics were down 14 with 9:16 left. Not ideal, but far from finished. On this play, Philadelphia put Boston in the bonus for the rest of the way. There should have been some life and some energy. Instead, this happened:
Jaylen Brown went down pretty hard there. Instead of four Celtics barging in to pick him up, everyone just stopped, before a couple of Boston players slowly made their way over to get Brown to his feet.
It was one play, but that’s sort of how it’s been for months now. That edge, that snarling ferocity, that joy in taking away an opponent’s life one play at a time, they just aren’t there anymore.
The season isn’t over, but it’s teetering. The Celtics can still pull it back, but in order to do that, they need to become those Celtics again. There can be no low-energy start. There can be no passive play. If you’re going to go down, go down fighting. That’s all we can ask for.
There’s at least one more game this season. Go back to being the bullies on the block. Knock someone down. Pick up your teammates when they get knocked down. Snatch the soul from the Sixers with defensive stop after defensive stop. And then tell them about it when you do. Play with an edge that makes everyone remember who you are. If you fall playing that way, it’s a respectable death of the season. At least go down fighting. That’s what everyone who bleeds green deserves.