The Boston Celtics’ lack of urgency was, frankly, incomprehensible.
Two days after an embarrassing collapse in New Orleans, and in the midst of a month-long struggle that threatened to drop this team below .500 for the first time in more than a half decade, the Celtics played the first 44 minutes of Tuesday's game in Dallas like it was just another game.
On a night the team should have been toasting its two franchise cornerstones with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both named NBA All-Star reserves, the Celtics got burnt by the basketball gods (and a 21-year-old sharpshooter) while losing in excruciating fashion. All of which only accentuated that Tatum and Brown have struggled to turn loud individual stat lines into team wins this season.
It was the latest rock bottom in a stretch where every night feels like it can’t possibly get worse ... then does.
The Celtics are now 15-16 overall. They sit sixth in the Eastern Conference but are only a half-game up on three teams. There is a very real chance that Boston could go to bed Wednesday night sitting outside the East’s top eight.
How did they even get here?
The Celtics won eight of their first 11 games. Tatum was hitting game-winners over Giannis Antetokounmpo (albeit, with a little bit of bank-shot luck) and Brown was playing like an All-NBA candidate. Coach Brad Stevens cautioned against getting too excited but even he couldn’t have known the turbulence ahead.
Since the middle of January, the Celtics have been a mediocre basketball team. Their offense too often devolves to cluttered, isolation play. An already leaky defense completely unravels in the fourth quarter and crunch time.
Danny Ainge’s offseason signings haven’t consistently impacted winning. Stevens has made some curious rotation decisions, hindered by the lack of separation among depth options, and can’t seem to get his team to play with consistent effort and energy.
Tatum and Brown display too much me-first basketball when things get tight. Kemba Walker is still searching for consistency. Marcus Smart has been a spectator for much of the unraveling while dealing with a calf injury.
All of which leaves the Celtics stumbling to the finish line of the first half of a weird pandemic season. No team needs both a rest and a reset button more than Boston.
But a break alone is unlikely to cure what ails this team. In fact, it’s hard to even know where to start with fixing this mess. But here are a few things that could help:
PLAYING WITH HEART
No amount of tinkering is going to fix these Celtics until the stars of this team decide to take this rough patch personally and actually play like winning matters to them.
The worst thing you can call a team in basketball is soft. And too often the Celtics look soft. They want everything to come easy for them. When things get tough, they often fold. How else can you explain a team that has lost 11 of its last 13 crunch-time games (score within five in the last five minutes)? Boston has had some dazzling stretches of basketball in recent weeks but has not put together a full 48-minute effort this season.
Postgame press conferences are somber and there are hints of frustration but mostly there's shrugs and suggestions that there are still a lot of games left. The Celtics don’t seem to take these struggles personally and half of the season is in the rearview.
Until the Celtics commit to playing harder and putting in the effort more consistently, they’re going to remain on this nauseating roller coaster.
MAKING A MOVE
Let’s be clear here: The Celtics should not make a move to simply make a move. Too often, teams overreact to rough patches and make panic changes because of public pressure. Rarely do those moves positively impact the team.
All that said, Ainge can’t just wait for the market to develop in the days before the late-March trade deadline. Sure, cluttered standings have limited the amount of surefire sellers but that might send price tags skyrocketing next month with a large pool of potential contenders scrambling for a thin pool of available talent.
The Celtics need to identify the player(s) they feel can best help this team and be ultra aggressive in pushing their chips to the center of the table. This might be a year where Ainge has to splurge a bit to land an ideal target, especially if it’s someone who can help this team beyond this season.
A move sooner than later maximizes the amount of time players will have to develop chemistry while also forcing Stevens to lock in a more firm rotation.
THE KEMBA CONUNDRUM
After Tuesday’s loss, Kendrick Perkins wondered out loud if the Celtics need to trade Walker.
There’s no denying that Walker’s fit isn’t necessarily ideal. With Tatum and Brown making leaps the past two seasons, a high-usage point guard with limited playmaking skills isn’t the best fit.
Personality wise, there’s no denying Walker is the perfect third wheel. He’s nurtured the Jays’ development and celebrated their ascension. The question is whether he can morph his own game, all while battling a bum knee, and make Boston’s offense a consistent juggernaut.
Moving Walker would be no easy task, especially during the season. He’s making a team-high $34.4 million this season and is under contract for two more years and a total of $73.7 million (the final year is a player option). His value is limited given his salary, age, and health.
Moving Walker gets a bit more feasible this summer and beyond. Right now, the team has to simply hope the knee holds up, that Walker plays like he did in the fourth quarter against Dallas, and that their current star trio can all modify their games to accentuate one another.
WHO LEADS THE TEAM THROUGH THIS ROUGH PATCH?
Stevens is facing the most scrutiny of his Boston tenure but he’s also sixth months removed from signing a long-term extension. Ainge has suggested that Stevens is the least of Boston’s problems but the coach does need to figure out how to get his superstars to more often commit to playing the desired brand of basketball.
A more defined rotation might help, too. Robert Williams can’t be playing 10 minutes fewer than Semi Ojeleye based on impact on the court. Maybe any roster tinkering by Ainge will make it easier for Stevens to lock in on his 10-man core (with other players operating in spot situations, if only because of an unrelenting schedule).
The bigger question, from this vantage point, is this: Who are the voices that will speak up in the locker room? Is it Smart, the longest-tenured member of the team who has rarely been bashful about airing his grievances when the team doesn’t play to its standard? Is it the 22-year-old Tatum or 24-year-old Brown? Can a new addition like Tristan Thompson be a voice given his experiences in Cleveland?
The Celtics need voices that will hold this team accountable for their underperformance and it’s unclear who has accepted that challenge thus far.