Right around the time the San Antonio Spurs were done hanging a staggering 46-point third quarter on the Boston Celtics on Monday night, my phone dinged with a message from a friend and Celtics season-ticket holder.
Why must this team make it so damn hard to like them?
The Celtics will reach the midway point of the 2018-19 season next week with no indication they will soon find the consistency that has so clearly escaped them this season. It’s easy to look at the home-heavy schedule that January presents and wonder if the team can gather some momentum. But then you remember that nothing has come easy for a team with home losses to the likes of the Magic, Suns and Knicks this season.
The identity of the Celtics for most of Brad Stevens’ tenure has been that of a spunky overachiever with unrivaled mental toughness. The arrival of Isaiah Thomas four years ago ushered in a run of some of the most enjoyable basketball since maybe the infancy of the most recent Big Three era. The Celtics routinely defied expectations and overcame adversity, making it easy for fans to wrap their arms around these teams.
But this year has been the complete opposite.
The healthy return of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, rejoining the young core that improbably surged to the fringe of the NBA Finals last season, was supposed to deliver a super team built to steamroll a LeBron-less East. Instead, with a new burden of expectations weighing heavy upon them, these Celtics have seen much of the roster underperform, much of the East overperform, and, as we welcome calendar year 2019, Boston finds itself sitting a disappointing fifth in the conference.
The frustration of fans is not unwarranted. These Celtics have shown themselves capable of competing with all the top teams ahead of them in the East, having scored wins over the Bucks, Raptors and 76ers (twice). They should have beaten the Pacers on the road if not for a late defensive miscue.
But that loss in Indy was Boston’s season in a nutshell. These Celtics have been incapable of putting together a 48-minute effort and even the tiniest of lapses has made their jobs exponentially more difficult.
To be fair, the Celtics routinely dug themselves double-digit deficits last season, only to storm back and steal wins. Boston faced a deficit of 12-plus points in a staggering 28 games during the 2017-18 campaign, but rallied to win 11 of them. That showed the sort of mental toughness that carried the team to Game 7 of the East finals despite playing without Irving and Hayward.
This season? The Celtics have now trailed by 12-plus in 16 games but have only rallied to win three. That included a nice, defense-fueled rally from a 19-point hole in Memphis over the weekend in which the Celtics limited the Grizzlies to 39 second-half points. Just when you wondered if that suggested progress, they got gouged for 46 third-quarter points in San Antonio.
Some Celtics fans, flummoxed by the team's continued inconsistencies, have pleaded for a roster move. And while it’s undeniable that a shakeup, even if minor in nature, can often force a team to refocus, those jolts are typically fleeting. They tend to mask the underlying issues before old habits creep back.
Danny Ainge has never dabbled in the business of panic trades and ought not start now. Each time we hear someone squawk for Boston to make a move, we ask for a suggestion of what might help this team. The response is shoulder shrugs.
Do you move Jaylen Brown -- his encouraging 30-point outburst in San Antonio notwithstanding -- or Terry Rozier when their values are at low points, especially compared to where they stood after last year’s playoff run? Selling low in hopes of giving your team a small midseason spark would also cost the sort of assets that might be key in pursuing a top-tier trade target over the summer. That’s not good business.
Listen, it’s undeniable the Celtics have lagged behind forecasts. You can count the players that have met or exceeded expectations on one hand: Irving, Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart. You can probably throw Aron Baynes into that mix, too, as his recent hand injury as the Celtics navigate a brutal stretch of beefy big men (Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge) has only emphasized the importance of his low-minute role on a team thin on non-stretch 5s.
Jayson Tatum has been solid and yet hasn’t made the sort of leaps we probably anticipated in Year 2. Hayward is still searching for the explosion he so clearly lacks as opponents stick the Marco Belinellis of the world on him and challenge him to attack. Al Horford, hindered a bit by knee soreness, has struggled with the consistency we’ve come to expect at both ends of the floor.
Brown and Rozier, in particular, haven’t reacclimatized to lesser roles and seem sometimes to stress too hard about impacting their shorter bursts of minutes. That the Celtics have negative net ratings when Brown (minus-1.5) and Rozier (minus-0.4) are on the court -- and that the net ratings skyrocket to plus-10.8 when both players are off the court -- only hammers home that the team still needs them to figure out how to do more with less.
If Brown finds a rhythm, if Hayward’s defiant shots start falling, and if Rozier plays more disciplined, then this team changes dramatically. Irving and the first unit with Smart and Morris has put up excellent numbers (plus-9.5 net rating in a team-high 150 minutes together). If the bench can just tread water most nights this team is going to win more consistently. If the reserves can dominate the way they should against lesser second units, Boston might morph into something closer to what we all expected.
It’s not going to happen overnight and, at this point, the Celtics’ focus should probably be on simply getting things right by season’s end. Barring injury or downshift by Toronto and Milwaukee, Boston’s best hope might be simply getting up to the No. 3 seed -- avoiding a more daunting first-round matchup -- and hope it can mitigate a lack of homecourt in latter rounds with talent and performance come April and May.
It’s OK for Celtics fans to be frustrated. Players and coaches, even if they don’t always wear it, are clearly as mystified at times as those watching the team. It’s on Stevens to get his team to play with more consistency. There’s no reason a deep team should have the sort of lulls we’ve seen and, if they continue, maybe there needs to be some tougher love for those not holding up their ends of the bargain.
Fans don’t expect this team to win each time out. There’s going to be bumps in the road. But the Celtics are better than what they’ve shown thus far and it’s not unreasonable for fans to demand more from a team with this sort of talent.
Make no mistake, fans are eager to embrace this team. Irving deserves to be in MVP consideration with not only his offensive brilliance but the way he’s embraced effort on the defensive end. Smart remains a Tasmanian Defensive Devil. And Morris has shown that you can adjust your game and thrive.
But fans need to see that sort of effort and sacrifice from the rest of the roster. They need to see the mental toughness that was the hallmark of this team in previous seasons. It’s not always going to translate to wins, but it’s a lot easier to embrace a team when you know it's doing everything possible to put themselves in position to be successful and not constantly getting in its own way.
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