Consider these two teams: one started this season 10-10, while the other started 12-8. Both teams were top 3 seeds in their respective conferences last season, so needless to say, they started off this year slower than expected.
After some bumps in the road those two teams have very similar records. One team is 37-24, while the other is 37-23. Both teams look set to make the playoffs, and after the first 20 games of their season, look to have righted the ship. Yet after last night, it’s only safe to make that argument for one of those teams.
The first team I mentioned is the Boston Celtics. The second team? The Portland Trail Blazers (Boston’s opponent tonight).
It’s all about context. The Trail Blazers got knocked out in the first round last year by the New Orleans Pelicans, and after an offseason that saw LeBron James go to the Lakers, and with a team like Utah primed to improve around Donovan Mitchell, it was safe to say Portland would fall a few steps back. Yet, as of February 27, they are the 4th seed in the Western Conference, 1 GB of Oklahoma City for 3rd, and rolling as of late; not bad considering the end to last season.
The Celtics, on the other hand, were expected to win over 60 games this season, but with 24 losses, the most wins they can have this season is 58. After winning 55 games last season when Kyrie Irving only played 60 games, and Gordon Hayward only played 6 minutes, it was safe to assume the fact they made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals WITHOUT those guys meant the team would improve with them.
That has not been the case.
After losing by 23 to Toronto, it’s just one more disappointing loss in a season where every loss seems to be the culmination of a lack of urgency, players put in questionable roles, and a distrust with one another. How did we get here, why has it been so frustrating, and is it too late for this team as currently constructed?
How did we get here?
Boston started slow out of the gate this season, especially on a five-game road trip where they went 1-4, with their only win coming in OT against the Phoenix Suns. Kyrie started the season slow, Gordon Hayward was clearly not his former self, and others were not showing too much to be happy about (except if your name was Marcus). The game that really solidified the slow start to me was at home against the New York Knicks the day before Thanksgiving.
The Celtics were 9-8 entering the game, coming off of two straight losses. Kemba Walker has just out Kyrie’d Kyrie, and we needed a rebound victory; facing the 4-14 Knicks surely seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.
Only the Celtics started getting whooped, BAD. At one point, the Knicks were winning 57-31, and if you had to pick a point to officially say the sky was falling, now was the time. You could have argued for changes to the starting lineup before this game (Hayward has just recently been moved to the bench), but after, it became clear who was being put out on the court, and the results they were getting, was not enough.
It took two more games, but starting November 26, Marcus Smart was officially inserted into the starting lineup over Jaylen Brown. Call it magic, but Boston went on to win 8 straight games with their new staring five (Kyrie, Smart, Morris, Tatum, Horford), averaging over 125 PPG in the process. The Celtics went on to lose three straight games after this, but then went on to win 7 of their next 9 games, which put them at 25-15 on the season.
After a 10-10 start, Boston went 15-5 in their next 20 games, and although there were some agitating losses in there (see: at home versus Phoenix), things were looking up.
As seems to be a theme this season, just when you think they’ve made it past the worst of the storm and things will be better, suddenly a nor’easter comes out of nowhere, and you’re back where you started.
Following their 25th win of the season, Boston went on a disappointing 3-game losing streak to Miami (19-20 prior to the game), Orlando (17-24 prior to the game), and Brooklyn (21-23 prior to the game).
The morning of January 10, Boston (25-15) was the 5th seed in the East, 4.5 GB of Toronto (31-12), 4 GB of Milwaukee (29-11), 1.5 GB of Indiana (27-14), and 1 GB of Philly (27-15); after losing three straight, on the morning of January 15, Boston (25-18) was still the 5th seed, this time 7 GB of Toronto (33-12), 5.5 GB of Milwaukee (30-12), 3.5 GB of Indiana (28-14), and 2.5 GB of Philly (28-16). In a stretch were they should have won every game, and could have stayed within striking distance of a major jump in the standings, the Celtics lost ground to every team ahead of them.
After Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris’ dispute following the Miami game, and the ending to the Orlando game, we heard that Kyrie reached out to LeBron James to apologize to him, as Kyrie had reached an epiphany that being the leader of a team with young players and possibly diverging agendas is hard. Kyrie had been good for quotes all year, but as the next few weeks would tell us, this revelation fed A LOT into the national media (how much of it is true, I don’t know), mainly about how Kyrie might leave this offseason. That became it’s own beast, adding to the already frustrating fact that every time the Celtics looked close to figuring it out and making a true jump in the standings, they lost a game to leave a sour taste in your mouth. Now all of that, and Kyrie might not be gone… oh boy.
To be fair, the Celtics responded after losing to Brooklyn to cap off their third straight loss. They went on to win 10 of their next 11 games, with their only loss coming to the Golden State Warriors at home in a closely contest contest. That stretch including a big win against Toronto, as well as a great game against the Thunder, a team equally as hot at the time. Even with the Kyrie (and Anthony Davis) rumors now swirling, Boston was 35-19 the morning of February 7, 25-9 since starting the season 10-10, and 10-1 since their disappointing three-game losing streak in January. For good measure, they were 3rd in the East, and just 3 GB of Toronto for the 2 seed; things were looking up.
Once again, just when you thought the shocking and ugly losses were done with, they weren’t. The Celtics had an 18-point lead against the Lakers during the second quarter of their match on February 7, but the Lakers were able to go on a run to close out the first half, only trailing by 9 at halftime. Then suddenly, the Lakers started hitting EVERYTHING, and Kyle Kuzma became Steph Curry, hitting four 3’s in the third quarter. The Lakers took the lead in the third quarter, and after two points which the game was tied, by the end of the third, they were winning 99-93.
The 4th quarer was close throughout, as the Celtics took the lead back with 10 minutes to go, but could not get more than a 6-point lead. At one point, it was 124-118 Boston with less than 90 seconds, but the Lakers got threes on two straight possessions to tie the game at 124 with 50 seconds left. After some back and forth, the Celtics scored with 11 seconds to go to take a 128-127 lead with 11 seconds left, but on the Lakers last possession, after a Brandon Ingram miss, Rajon Rondo somehow ended up with the ball, heaved up a mid-range shot at the buzzer, and splash.
Lakers 129, Celtics 128… brutal.
Two nights later, the Celtics seemed to rebound, storming out to a 68-40 lead on the Clippers more than halfway through the second quarter. Yet somehow, the Clippers came ALL THE WAY BACK, tying the game at 100 with less than 7 minutes to go, and won… by double digits (123-112).
Now how can you not be pissed after that?
The Celtics were able to close out the first half by beating the newly formed super team in Philly, and the Blake Griffin-led Pistons at home to hit the All-Star Break at 37-21.
However, since then, Boston has lost three straight: a close game to Milwaukee, and two embarrassing losses to Chicago and Toronto, and they are now 37-24, 7.5 GB of Toronto and the 2nd seed, and 9.5 GB of Milwaukee and the 1st seed.
After being 35-19 on February 7, Boston is 2-5 in their last 7 games.
Why is it so frustrating?
The Celtics have lost 14 games since November 26, yet half the time, those losses seem like a referendum on the state of the entire franchise, and a call for wholesale changes. After starting 10-10, it was clear this team was going to need to dig itself out of a self-inflicted hole in order to be where they were expected to be in the standings to start the season, and every step back was going to be magnified.
Even during their 25-9 stretch, losses to Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Miami, Orlando, and Brooklyn became causes for major concern. The Celtics were on a 60-win pace between November 26 and February 6, yet their losses became rallying cries for the media to say this team was not good enough, priorities weren’t right, and teammates were doubting each other. Add that in with Kyrie’s apparent questions surrounding free agency, and even though the team had “figured it out” for over two months, it was not good enough, which, as you can see, drains morale.
That is to give them the benefit of the doubt. This most recent 7-game stretch has shown that even though things were going good the 2+ months prior, they are not going smooth now.
Seemingly everyone on the team has questioned the urgency of each other, and how they are not a cohesive team, and if you’ve been watching, it’s a correct assessment.
“Not being together. And that’s it. We’re just not together. Plain and simple. That’s it. Because if we were together that wouldn’t happen.”
-Marcus Smart on being blown out by the Raptors
Anyone who’s watched the Celtics the past few years knows the staple of this team has been their urgency. The day Isaiah Thomas came to Boston four years ago, it seemed like they were in any game they played (maybe not against the Cavs at first), and even if they were behind, the would fight tooth and nail to grind back into the game. That’s what made the team so fun to watch in 2015-2017 as they were accumulating assets and plotting their moves for the future: they were so good right now, and fighting to be better.
When IT and Jae Crowder were traded for Kyrie, the last faces of the team the 2+ prior seasons were gone, only leaving Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Al Horford, and Jaylen Brown from the team of a season ago. Yet, after Gordon Hayward got hurt on opening night last season, Boston responded by winning 16 of their next 17 games, which included a 16-game winning streak with a plethora of unlikely comebacks. That same urgency that had existed in years prior was alive and well.
When it was announced Kyrie Irving (and Daniel Theis) would miss the postseason, with Marcus Smart being out until at least the middle of the first round, it seemed like the crazy journey would end early in the playoffs. How could a team without it’s best player, and the player who was supposed to be their second best player to start the season who had been out since Day 2, do any damage in the postseason? They were also missing their 6th man early (Smart), and a valuable rotation player in Daniel Theis. Could a team with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Hoford, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, and hopefully down the line Smart, be considered a threat in a year Toronto looked legit, Cleveland still had LeBron, Philly was on fire, and with Giannis lurking?
Yes, that team could compete. They won two rounds, and had a 3-2 on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, a playoff run better than the year prior when that team had it’s health going into the conference finals. Although they lost in 7 games to LeBron and the Cavs, the Celtics went on an improbable run led by a rookie, second-year player, a backup PG, and veteran center, not necessarily the formula for success in the modern NBA.
What’s frustrating is knowing all the key pieces from that run are back, and they got Kyrie and Hayward (and Theis) back as well. Yet it seems like their killer instinct has disappeared. We know they’re talented, we’ve seen what they are at their best, and know they can compete with the best of the best in this league, but when you blow 18-and 28-point leads in two straight games, lose to the Chicago Bulls, have Toronto pull ahead by 31 points on you… it’s frustrating. The Celtics I know, the Celtics of years’ past, would slap this current team in the face if they saw these types of results. They would be angry with all the work they put in to reach this point, with all this talent, only for a lack of urgency on many nights being the reason they lost. It’s not the only reason, that would be an unfair generalization, but when we know what the identity of this team has been for years, and how it has all but disappeared, it is disappointing to watch this team and wonder: where did the Celtics I know go?
Is it too late?
With 21 games remaining, the Celtics know at this point they will be seeded between 3 and 5 for the playoffs. That means that at best, they will have home court advantage in a series that is not against Indiana nor Philly in the first round, and at worst, being on the road to start the playoffs against one of those teams in the first round.
They’ll make the playoffs. For all the criticism we have given this team, they will make the playoffs. It sometimes seems they are a lot worse considering the media backlash they have received all season, but they are still a good team. However, compared to years’ past, the Eastern Conference is a lot stronger. The Milwaukee Bucks have built a team and system around Giannis that has made them look historically good. The Toronto Raptors have a star player in Kawhi Leonard, and with veterans in Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green, as well as rising third-year player Pascal Siakam, they are stronger than in years’ past. The 76ers have added to their team from a year ago with Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, creating a formidable starting 5 around Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and JJ Reddick. The Indiana Pacers are reminding me of the the 2017-2018 Celtics: even without Victor Oladipo, they have shown no quit, and are still in the thick of the race for the three seed between they, Philly and Boston. Even without LeBron, this is a stronger conference than it has been since 2010, and you can make an argument for 4-5 teams to make a run to the finals.
After watching the Patriots this season, no, it is not too late for the Celtics. They are simply too talented in a sport where talent reigns supreme more often than not. I am still extremely worried about the characteristics of this team, and they need to spend the final 21 games of the season coming together to realize how good they are, and the mission at hand of trying to succeed in the playoffs. There is still enough time for that, but I worry that if that message has not resonated thus far, if it suddenly will. Once again, the Patriots were 9-5 in December, and looked like a shell of themselves compared to past years (even with close losses in Miami and Pittsburgh), but the team came together and realized they needed to clean up their act if they expected to truly make a run, which they did.
With the C’s, we’ve seen plenty of player-only meetings, plenty of things said in the media, plenty of the frustration… this has been building all season.
The Celtics still have time to look themselves in the mirror, turn off the outside noise, and create a unified front where they do not question each other, but rather, play as a team and work like that have in the past to achieve their desired results.
Maybe the expectations were too high this season, maybe the team took itself for granted and assumed since they went so far last season, they would just be better this season, but that has not happened. We know what they are at their best, look at their 25-9 stretch; that team is still here. In the playoffs, they will possibly not have home court advantage for the entire playoffs, so if they want to turn things around and achieve a desired outcome, goal number 1 should be playing for the 3-4 seed (preferably 3). Goal number 2 should be coming together as a team to clean up the mistakes of this season, air out any grievances in the locker room, and be unified for the playoffs.
Kyrie said he still believes in this team to win any seven-game series they may encounter. For all that this regular season has been, the Celtics will ultimately be judged on their success (or lack thereof) this postseason, and it is on them from here on out to figure out how to best position themselves for that reality.
There is still time, but my question is this: how much do they truly want it? That’s what we should keep in mind the rest of the season.
Follow Nick on Twitter (@Nick_Collins14)