Celtics

Celtics

We’re searching for the right word to describe the last 10 days for the Boston Celtics.

Tumultuous? Tempestuous? Terrible? Any of those adjectives work. In a season in which an awful lot had gone right — well, beyond sustained good health — these Celtics came accelerating down from the peak they’d reached, hit an unexpected patch of black ice, and they’ve been spinning ever since.

Losers of four of their last five, the Celtics have slipped 3.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors in the pursuit of the No. 2 seed.

Kemba Walker is mired in a monthlong slump, all while working his way back from concerning knee soreness. Even as his star rises, Jayson Tatum is learning the difficulty of shouldering the scoring burden on a nightly basis. With Boston routinely shorthanded due to injuries, Boston’s more inexperienced players have struggled to consistently impact the game in reserve roles, thrusting Danny Ainge in the crosshairs for not adding a helping hand at the trade deadline and start of buyout activity.

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Throw in a couple of unforgivable late-game collapses and suddenly the sky is falling.

So it won’t surprise you that readers had a whole bunch of questions — and opinions — about how exactly Boston can pull itself from this funk.

From Brad blame to bench bile, let’s dive into your letters: 

MORE OF A COMMENT THAN A QUESTION

Seriously concerned about the expected playoff starting 5 of Kemba, Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Daniel Theis not playing quality minutes together, and the possibility of first-round exit against Philly with C's not pushing for 2 seed. — @cheeroo

 

These are valid concerns. Boston’s starting 5 has been stuck at 188 minutes of total floor time for a while now. Every time one starter comes back from injury, another takes the ailment baton.

It’s wild that Boston’s preferred starring 5 is still the team’s only 5-man lineup with more than 150 minutes of floor time, though one lineup swapping Smart for Brown should nudge past that benchmark on Tuesday night in Indiana. Boston has put up quality numbers with both of those groups, the preferred 5 being an offensive juggernaut, while the Smart variation posting an absurd defensive rating of 94. What’s more, all five of Boston’s top four-man lineups have all posted net ratings north of plus-7.6, an encouraging sign about how the top players fare together.

Alas, the Celtics are running out of time to get that much-desired run of good health that might confirm just how good the team can be with its top players available.

As for seeding, you’re not the only one, @cheeroo … 

Just hoping we won't face the Sixers in the first round. — @SuperLoumy

The Celtics currently project with a whopping 80.1 percent chance of playing either the Pacers (43.9 percent) or Sixers (36.2) in a first-round matchup, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, which now gives Toronto an 84.9 percent chance of landing the 2 seed.

Those matchup numbers are a sobering prospect for Boston considering just how good Indiana and Philadelphia can be when healthy. If nothing else, those ceilings are a lot higher than, say, the Magic and Nets, who loom as the most likely opponent for the No. 2 seed.

Both the Pacers and 76ers pose potential matchup issues with their size, and Boston’s path to the East Finals becomes a lot more daunting. Not only is there that tougher 3-6 matchup, but the Celtics would almost certainly have to go on the road against Toronto in the East Semis. With the Raptors as the home team, BPI gives Toronto a 53 percent chance to win the series (Boston’s odds bump from 47 percent to 55 percent if it was the hosting 2 seed).

This little blip may have truly complicated Boston’s path and really forces the Celtics to double down on prioritizing health over seeding, especially if they don’t win the final head-to-head matchup with Toronto later this month. 

How the team handles this slump will determine a lot. Hoping for the best. I think the team moral is at a healthy place to pull through. — @DevinLouisGore

The Celtics did a nice job bouncing back after the Brooklyn disaster, alas it was the Cavaliers on the other side of the court. To kick away double-digit leads, at home, against Utah and Oklahoma City puts the Celtics right back in the position of having to show their mettle heading out on the road. We’ll be very interested to see how they respond in Indiana, and whether they catch a break in Milwaukee if Giannis Antetokounmpo is still sidelined on Thursday.

 

Ten days ago we were wondering if the Celtics were peaking at the right time, and now they’ve got to catch themselves from this fall and rebuild the positive energy that existed.

The team just needs to get healthy. I haven't seen the full roster but maybe 12 times all year. Patience and health. And I am concerned about Kemba's knee. He's not the same player. Shut him down more if need be. — @JohnMurphyMedia

By my quick count, the Celtics have had their top 7 intact — the preferred starting 5 with Marcus Smart and Enes Kanter both healthy off the bench — just eight times this season, and only three times since Jan. 11. Boston had a run of its better wins while near full strength, including triumphs over the Sixers, Lakers, and Thunder. 

As for Walker, we’d tend to agree. He just doesn’t look like himself and it goes beyond the missed shots. As we wrote after Sunday’s disaster, Walker isn’t playing with the same swagger and that familiar late-game confidence. His inability to finish around the basket is likewise troubling and suggests a lack of confidence in the knee. If chances at the 2 seed continue to fade, expect the Celtics to put a premium on getting Walker right.

"Kemba is one of our best players, we need him to have a chance to do anything significant, and we all know it,” Stevens said after Sunday’s loss. "So whatever it takes for us all to be at our best, when our best is needed, we need to do that, but he's a critical piece."

With Tatum’s emergence as a star it feels like the rest of the offense has become a little stagnant. Would you agree with this assessment? And what do you see as a solution to everyone standing around and watching on offense? — @Downtown13

We think this is a fair assessment. While we’ve made the case that Boston absolutely needs to feed the hot hand, something it failed to do a lot of times last year when everyone was looking for their shots, there are times when the pendulum swings a bit too far to, “OK, Tatum, make something happen.”

It’s hard to test the theory though because 1) The Celtics have leaned heavier on Tatum during his explosion since being named an All-Star, and 2) The absence and limitations of Walker has increased Tatum’s workload, too, so his usage numbers had already spiked. It’s interesting that Boston’s five most recent wins has seen the team with a lower-than-usual assist rate (sub 50 percent in each game) while the last eight losses have all been 52 percent and typically closer to their 55.5 percent mark for the season.

 

PEOPLE ORDERING VINTAGE "I HATE DANNY AINGE" T-SHIRTS

Does Danny Ainge not believe in this team to not get scoring or size help at the deadline, or is he just a bad GM? — @RealKingOfCheap

I’ve heard this suggested before, that Ainge didn’t make a move because he doesn’t believe this team is a legitimate contender. It seems a bit misguided. You can lament Ainge’s reluctance to pay steep prices to add talent at the deadline, but I don’t think it was a reflection on what he believes this team can achieve. I think Ainge is confident in this group at full health and has simply been burnt by injuries.

That said, I don’t know that, even if Ainge knew the health woes would persist, he would have been any more willing to overpay for an 8th man. 

Bench is terrible. Danny won’t get off his old ass and sign IT or Jamal Crawford to help our bench. — @IsoXander

Need some damn bench scoring. Too many rookies on the roster. Lack of veteran leadership will hurt come playoffs. Need buckets off the bench. Someone give Jamal Crawford a call. He’s fresh and ready to help a playoff team out. At this point it can’t hurt. — @KlaytonJohnston

Don’t take this personally, Xander and Klayton, but since you brought up Jamal Crawford… Have people completely lost their basketball minds?

We’re talking about a soon-to-be 40-year-old who has been a net negative for his teams since 2016. The Phoenix Suns had a net rating of minus-15.1 with Crawford on the court last season, an impossibly bad number even for a bad team.

Yes, he’s a professional scorer who had a fantastic two-decade career. And yet we can’t shake the notion that he’d be an absolute liability on the defensive end and wouldn’t get the minutes or touches needed to fully take advantage of his offensive abilities. I know what you’re thinking: “P.J. Brown was 38 years old and out of basketball and he helped!” but the difference is Brown was a solid defender who didn’t need the ball in his hands to impact the offensive end in small chunks of playing time. 

We need to fix the bench before the playoffs. If we don’t, we’re a first-round exit waiting to happen. — @AzzSam

I understand the obsession with the bench but, ultimately, if the Celtics’ top players are not healthy and performing to their potential, then it probably doesn’t matter. There is no one available now who is going to change the trajectory of the season, so it’s on the core to carry this team as far as it can go.

Chris, is there any chatter about a buyout? This team needs depth and it needs depth bad. — @KevinOmara731

 

Ainge has been unwavering in his suggestion that there isn’t anyone on the buyout scrapheap that could help this team. Health concerns could always force Boston to reconsider an addition, but if this team starts to get locked into the 3-seed, it might be better to simply throw the rookies in the fire and hope it helps them in case they get emergency minutes in the postseason.

Need all the Green Teamers to be logical, Chris, and admit Ainge screwed up not trading for two bench pieces. Our bench stinks and we could have gave up a late first and a second and added two pieces better than what we have. — @BobbyDlight14

Tell me the deal that was available, at a reasonable cost, that made sense in both the short- and long-term view. This team wasn’t giving up all its best draft assets (and no is suggesting any of those assets were untouchable) for the chance to pay Davis Bertans big money to be the 7th or 8th man next year. Golden State wasn’t interested in taking back any salary while shipping out Alec Burks and Glen Robinson III as a tandem. Short of overpaying, there wasn’t seemingly a deal that made sense for Boston.

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THE ISAIAH THOMAS QUESTION OF THE WEEK

(It wouldn’t be a mailbag day if someone didn’t ask about IT.)

Should the C’s waive Brad Wanamaker? The team needs a spark off the bench. Is it too much of a Cinderella story to bring back IT? He’s hungry, healthy, and familiar with the system. Comes at a cheap price too. — @carey_mercier

I love Isaiah. You love Isaiah. The Celtics love Isaiah. But 2016-17 Isaiah isn’t walking through that door. Sequels are rarely as good as the originals. Let’s just remember the good times.

WHAT ELSE YA GOT?

I think we need to change up the rotation so we can ONLY have Kemba/Hayward/Smart be primary ball-handlers. Start Langford for defense and then have Smart 6th man for Kemba/Hayward. Wanamaker lineups are costing us because he can't create. — @AP2Jay

Poor Wanamaker. When he plays between roughly 15-22 minutes, the Celtics are 22-6 this year (.785 winning percentage). He’s been decent in small doses, but injuries and overtime games have pushed him north of 26 minutes in three straight games during this rough patch. He had four turnovers and five fouls in the Brooklyn game, then was a minus-25 against Utah. Boston’s offensive rating with Wanamaker on the court the past five games has been 98.2 (and a net rating of minus-16.8 overall). He’s a beast in transition but he’s not your typical playmaker and the offense has absolutely sputtered with reserve groups.

Again, we come back to a common refrain: If Boston was healthy, this isn’t as big of an issue. Wanamaker could play a smaller role, the Celtics could keep more ball-handlers on the floor more often, and these issues aren’t as glaring.

 

As good as Theis is, the team simply has a different flow when RW3 is on the court. He probably shouldn't have come out of the Brooklyn game. Your thoughts on him being a starter, then trading Theis in offseason for high pick? — @bubbleblabber

Theis has been one of the best values in the NBA this season and a fantastic complement to the others in the starting five. Even at his sweetheart of a deal, you’re not getting a high pick if you move him. What’s more, even as the president of the Rob Williams Fan Club, let’s see him get through a stretch of games healthy before we even consider the notion of a future starter.

PEOPLE ARE MAD AT BRAD

What happened to Brad’s end-of-game coaching? I feel like he is either letting his players make some of the calls or the execution has really fallen apart. — @JasonDRossi

Stevens certainly seems to be throwing darts at times early in games with his rotations when Boston is shorthanded and the bench inconsistency has really made it tough for him to know who exactly to lean on. If you want to quibble about timeout usage or substitution patterns while recent leads have slipped away, that’s fair, too.

Ultimately, most lapses in execution fall back in part on the coach. So while I don’t think he’s drawing up late-game plays designed to create turnovers when his team has a chance to dribble out the clock, it’s on Stevens to ensure his players are not put in that position. It’s on Stevens to be the steadying presence when things get rocky.

Being nice to officials' incompetence is not working for Brad. Players are frustrated. Kemba, Smart, Tatum get techs but Brad grins and says, “Oh, golly". Take the heat off them having to respond. — @Pdub454

Not sure the officiating has played much of a role in Boston’s recent collapses. If Brad should be screaming at anyone, he should start with his players.

Brad … Freakin … Stevens. Enough is enough. Give me Kenny Atkinson. He is passionate. Gets his players to play hard. And is available. Let Brad go back to college b-ball. — @robtopiaforall

I truly admire how irrational fans can get during rough patches. Another letter called Stevens the “Ben Simmons of coaching.”

As Stevens noted the other day, “You can feel like you’re on top of the world one week and you can feel like the sky is falling the next. That’s the hardest part about the NBA.” It’s on Stevens and the Celtics to show this is a blip and not a pattern.

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