Let’s start with a tiny bit of positivity, if only because it’s in short supply at the moment:
The Boston Celtics, despite their recent bumps in the road, have shown a potential to be a legitimate title contender, thanks in large part to the ascension of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics should eventually get healthier, they’ve dealt with a rather unforgiving schedule, and no team is immune from the sort of in-season skid that leaves their fan base smashing panic buttons.
Since returning from their unexpected COVID sabbatical in mid-January, the Celtics have displayed a truly maddening inconsistency. Boston is 5-10 over a month-long span and its offensive rating (109.1, 22nd) and net rating (minus-1.5) both rank in the bottom third of the league in that span. The Celtics have now lost four of their last five games, including a head-slapping double feature this past weekend against two of the worst teams in the NBA (Washington and Detroit).
All of which leaves the denizens of Celtics Nation shaken and uncertain. There is venom spewing in every direction. Some are upset with Brad Stevens’ rotations, others are mad that Danny Ainge hasn’t made moves to add impact talent around the Jays, and the players certainly haven't been absolved from any of this mess either.
It left Celtics leaders fielding questions after Sunday’s abysmal loss in D.C. about whether the team has hit rock bottom. And they didn’t exactly scoff at the notion.
"It could be [rock bottom],” said Brown. "It’s up to the mentality of everybody, how we come in every day and prepare to work. If you let it be rock-bottom mentality then that’s what it’s gonna be. You come to play, then it’ll show. And today we weren’t very good.”
Even Kemba Walker, one of the only bright spots on Sunday with his renewed aggression attacking the basket and finishing in traffic, wasn’t in the mood to focus on positives.
“We’ve just gotta figure some things out,” said Walker. "Positive? It ain’t many positives, I’m gonna be honest. We just are not good right now.”
Here’s the most damning sequence from Sunday’s stinkfest:
Tatum, laboring through both foul trouble and a rare offensive dud, missed a layup midway through the third quarter and was slow getting back. The Wizards broke out in transition and Rui Hachimura got an easy dunk.
Stevens called timeout hoping to prevent the wheels from coming off. Instead, Boston committed turnovers on each of its next four possessions. How fitting that each of Boston’s Big Three — Walker, Tatum, and Brown — each had a giveaway in that span as Washington’s lead ballooned to 24 and Boston’s body language was a human white flag.
Who deserves blame for the Celtics reaching a potential rock bottom? From this vantage point, there’s plenty to go around.
Boston’s big offseason additions haven’t consistently aided winning and the team is left waiting for Ainge to use the Hayward traded player exception to both fill the obvious Hayward void and infuse talent alongside the core.
Stevens has experimented with all sorts of lineups -- in part because of injuries and absences -- but there’s no semblance of a firm rotation and inconsistent playing time has potentially hindered the development of recent draftees like Aaron Nesmith (who should benefit greatly from 30 minutes in Sunday’s game), Robert Williams, and Grant Williams.
Obviously, it would be a lot easier for Stevens to navigate with a healthy Marcus Smart, Romeo Langford, and anyone the traded-player exception eventually delivers. What would help, too, is separation among bench players. Rookie Payton Pritchard has kicked down the playing time door but few others have done the same (though Semi Ojeleye has made the most of his minutes recently).
Maybe it’s most maddening because Brown has been spectacular for most of the year and, Sunday aside, so too has Tatum. But they’ve been forced to shoulder a hefty load with a mountain of minutes and a relentless schedule. Some of that might be catching up with them as the Celtics simply try to get to an early March All-Star break that might allow them to reset before the second-half push.
But the Celtics, regardless of health and additions, have a whole bunch of areas to tighten up. They’ve got to take better care of the basketball. They need to stop fouling so much. The defense is trending in the wrong direction in the fourth quarter and Boston has played an insane amount of close games, many of which have tipped the wrong way lately.
OK, deep breath. The Celtics are (somewhat improbably) a half-game back of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. They are far from the only team with championship aspirations that has struggled to find consistency.
One of the telltale signs of good teams, though, is how they catch themselves when things go sideways. Can the Celtics pull themselves out of this tailspin and get back on a title-contention path?
Even as they pondered rock bottom, Celtics players held out hope of figuring this all out.
"I think we can flip things around at any moment,” said Brown. "I always have faith in this organization and team and our coaching staff. We sucked [Sunday]. We haven’t played well over the last few games for whatever reason but I believe we can turn it around at any moment."
Added Walker: "I don’t think it’s anything that’s uncontrollable. I think it’s us, as a whole, we just have to be better. I think I can do a better job just getting my teammates prepared to play a game. We’ll get better. Some very disappointing losses. We’re just not playing the way that we know we’re capable of playing. That has to be fixed. And soon.”
Told of the consternation in the team’s fan base, Walker put the onus on the players.
"To be honest, I could care less what people think. That’s not what this is about. This is about us,” said Walker. "This is about us getting better. We will. We’ll figure it out. Every year is different. Every season is different. We have a whole new team. We have young guys. That’s on us, that’s on myself and some of the guys who have been around. We’ve got to change some things, and we will. We will.
"I’m very confident that we will change things and we will continue to get better. It’ll change, because it’s not a great feeling the way we’re playing. It can’t get no worse than this. We’re going to fix it. For sure.”