Celtics

Celtics

The 2018-19 Boston Celtics might be one of the most confounding NBA teams in recent memory. 

It’s a group bursting at the seams with talent and one that has proven itself capable of hanging with the league’s elite, and yet they routinely struggle against inferior competition. It’s a team with championship aspirations and yet they’ve lingered in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff seedings for nearly the entire season. It’s a team helmed by a coach that preaches a never-too-high, never-too-low philosophy and yet players have been prone to wild swings in emotion based on the team’s performance.

Game 60 was the perfect microcosm of this team. Coming off a one-point loss to a Milwaukee Bucks team with the best record in the NBA, the Celtics were listless against the 15-win Chicago Bulls, falling behind by 25 and suffering a double-digit loss Saturday to a team it beat by 56 on the same court two months earlier.

After the game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens suggested he’s got to be better. Kyrie Irving put a spin move on his sometimes-critical postgame chatter and boldly declared the Celtics were just trying to get to the playoffs, where he didn’t see a team that could beat Boston in a seven-game playoff series. Al Horford followed by suggesting that this team can’t just expect to flip a switch. Marcus Smart kept screaming into a chasm about needing more effort from a team that’s clearly not willing to work to be great in the regular season.

 

The NBA playoffs begin in 47 days. The Celtics might get bounced in Round 1, or they might surge to the NBA Finals. Good luck trying to forecast this team. But there’s still time for redemptions.

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There’s also a lot of work to do and it’s unclear if this team is willing to put in the work to salvage a maddening season.

Boston’s inconsistencies, and players' often overly emotional reactions to the bumps in the road, have worn on the team's fan base. The Celtics were easy to wrap your arms around in past seasons, the spunky overachievers who routinely overcame adversity to outkick expectations. This group seems sometimes stressed by the burden of expectations and can’t easily move past adversity. This team’s ability to better endure turbulence might ultimately dictate just how far it can surge, and whether it can win over fans by showing the sort of mental toughness that’s been the hallmark of Stevens’ teams in past years.

Some thoughts on the hot-button issues surrounding the team and what needs to happen for this team to find the consistency it’s lacked: 

How much blame falls on Brad Stevens?

After the loss in Chicago, Stevens said he’s disappointed in himself and needs to do a better job coaching this team. Was he trying to take some heat off his players, or genuinely frustrated with his own performance? Probably a little bit of both.

Ultimately, when a team doesn’t live up to its potential and struggles with consistency, that falls back on the coach. Stevens has been resistant to wholesale changes, in part because, in the bigger picture, the Celtics have played well the past three months. Injuries have complicated that process, too, and it’s fair to wonder if little things like having defensive-minded energy-giver Aron Baynes available would cure a bit of what has ailed Boston’s reserve groups. Alas, this post-All-Star speed bump might be providing an opportunity for Stevens to test some lineup tweaks with the goal of finding the units that work best.

Stevens has said he needs to hold his players accountable when they don’t play to the expected standard. While he — more than anyone, especially given this team’s temperament — has to be careful to not make overreactions, the final 22 games offer one last chance to see if small alterations can promote a bit more consistency.

How much blame falls on Terry Rozier?

No player finds themselves more in the crosshairs of Celtics fans at the moment than Terry Rozier. Some of it is justified: Boston's net rating with Rozier on the court in February is minus-5.8 (and that number spikes to plus-5.0 when he’s off the court). Over those nine games, Rozier is shooting 34.2 percent while hoisting 9.1 shots over 23.8 minutes per game. Over the last four games — including two in his typically jolting starter role — Rozier has made just 5 of 26 shots (19.2 percent), including just 2 of 13 3-pointers (15.4 percent). 

 

But to put the Celtics' struggles on Rozier alone is grossly unfair. Yes, he’s struggled to figure out how to consistently impact games this season, particularly in a reserve role with the return of Irving. For the season, he has the lowest on-court net rating among all Celtics regulars at plus-0.6, and that number spikes to a team-best plus-10.5 when he’s on the bench.

Stevens might need to reel Rozier in when he gets a bit reckless with his shot attempts, as he did in the second quarter of Saturday’s loss in Chicago. But Rozier is too talented to simply phase out. Imported rookie Brad Wanamaker can give a nice jolt of energy and effort in small doses but it’s hard to know if he could have a sustained impact in bigger minutes. The Celtics rotation is going to crunch down closer to the playoffs and ultimately the playing time for reserves like Rozier will be dictated by just how impactful those players can be in smaller chunks. Stevens shouldn’t be bashful in tightening rotations at times late in the season.

Should the Celtics make a lineup change?

Stevens doesn’t like how much reporters tend to fixate on the starting 5. He’s routinely pointed to how fluid that group has been during the postseason with the coaching staff unafraid to make tweaks to best match up with an opponent (see also: starter Gerald Green). It’s fair to wonder if there will be matchups this postseason where Boston might deploy a healthy Baynes to add some beef to the front line and limit the wear on Al Horford. It’s all part of the chess match.

The question, in the interim, is whether Boston should consider a lineup tweak before the postseason. The Celtics entered the season hoping to lean on a starting 5 of Irving, Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. It didn’t work and the struggles of that 5 played heavily into Boston’s lackluster start. The team found more success after Smart and Marcus Morris were shuffled into the starting group.

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Keeping Hayward with the reserve group is intriguing for staggering purposes as the Celtics would probably desire to keep one of Hayward and Irving on the court at all times in the postseason. But with both Smart and Morris cooling off, it seems fair to wonder if Stevens should experiment with moving Hayward and/or Brown back to starting roles.

The Celtics’ current starting 5 (Irving, Smart, Tatum, Morris, Horford) has been excellent, owning a plus-11.6 net rating in 378 minutes of floor time overall. Among high-volume 5-man groups, they are one of the most efficient in the league. But in the six games they’ve played together in February, that group is down to plus-1.8 net rating over 95 minutes. 

What’s more, Smart and Morris have seen their efficiencies plummet this month. Over nine games in February, the Celtics own net ratings of minus-6.6 (Smart) and minus-2.6 (Morris) with the Marcuses. What’s more, Boston is plus-7.5 or better when either is off the court.

 

It could just be a blip for two players that have each endured little slumps. But it might also be opening the door for Stevens to experiment, even if the goal of any swap might be more to solidify the second-quarter lulls the team is enduring when reserve lineups are on the court.

Can the Celtics win in Toronto? Does playoff seeding matter to Boston?

The Celtics visit the Toronto Raptors in another East showdown on Tuesday night. Boston hasn’t won north of the border since April 4, 2015. To put that in perspective, Smart is the only player on the roster from that night, a game in which his tip-in at the buzzer lifted Boston to a 117-116 overtime victory. You’d have to rewind to the pre-Stevens era to find the last win in Toronto before that.

Winning on the road is going to be essential for the Celtics and there’s a strong case to be made that Toronto is the most daunting of playoff matchups for Boston should those two line up. While seeding adds an obvious layer of difficulty to Boston’s postseason odyssey, it would seem playing at a high level is paramount at the moment.

Still, Tuesday is a chance to clear a mental hurdle about playing in Toronto.

The Celtics have made their playoff path all the more daunting with their inconsistent nature. They are not catching the Raptors or Bucks so the focus has to be on balancing the push to get ahead of Philadelphia or Indiana. Being rested and playing at a high level should trump the seedings push.

Can this team really flip a switch likely Kyrie suggested?

There’s certainly something to the notion that the refresh button that arrives on April 9 could aid Boston. Nothing the team accomplished during the regular season was going to matter in how this team is ultimately judged anyhow.

Boston’s inconsistencies will simply become part of their journey if they can turn things on in the postseason. What’s clear, though, is that they must become better at handling adversity — whether that’s a tough loss, or a tough in-game run — if they’re going to find that success.

Irving is going to be particularly motivated in the postseason and Boston has proven itself capable of pushing elite competition. Maybe that’s why Irving’s narrative changed this week. The regular season has been mentally exhausting and, while he’s putting pressure on himself by suggesting that the team will be OK in the playoffs because of his presence, he seemingly recognizes that the team has to get beyond the noise of the regular season.

Here’s the good news: Despite all their inconsistencies, the Celtics have lingered near the top of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index for most of the season. They sat third behind only the Warriors and Nuggets entering Monday’s action. What’s more, they remain in front of five teams with better overall records, including the Raptors team they trail by 6.5 games entering Tuesday’s head-to-head matchup.

 

Which is to say: Boston is better than its record suggests. It simply can’t get out of its own way sometimes.

There’s plenty of work to be done to get where this team wants to go and they’ve made the journey more difficult than it needed to be. But maybe the reward will be sweeter given what they’ve endured. At least that’s what they have to convince themselves.

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