The Boston Celtics gave a national audience the full roller coaster ride on Sunday, as if trying to showcase just how nauseating the 2020-21 season has been for Celtics fans.
There were stretches where the Celtics dazzled, getting superstar play from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, all while younger players like Rob Williams and Aaron Nesmith had encouraging moments that suggested they could possibly emerge as key rotation presences.
At one point early in the second half, it felt like the Celtics might truly be just one healthy Marcus Smart and an impactful trade addition away from being a legitimate title contender.
Then the Mr. Hyde Celtics emerged midway through the third quarter. Boston’s offense deteriorated to CYO levels of efficiency while the team’s defense performed its latest vanishing act.
Thirty games into the season, the Celtics are what their record says they are. A 15-15 team with no semblance of consistency. It’s one step forward, one step back. Even more concerning, the team padded its record early in the year by winning a bunch of close games and now routinely falls apart in the fourth quarter and crunch time.
The Celtics have played an NBA-high 19 clutch games -- score within 5 points in the final 5 minutes -- and they are now just 7-12 in them. More frightening, they’re a ghastly 2-10 in those games since January 9. During that span, Boston’s net rating in crunch time is minus-33.2, with an offensive rating of a terrible 95.4.
After Sunday’s head-slapper in New Orleans, the Celtics now rank 29th in the NBA with a net rating of minus-7.8 in the fourth quarter. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers (minus-8.8) are worse.
Boston balances an anemic 105.4 offensive rating (27th) with a 113.2 defensive rating (25th overall) in the fourth quarter. Boston’s assist percentage plummets in the fourth quarter when they too often rely on isolation play and Boston can’t consistently get stops when it needs them most.
"We’ve got a lot of things to clean up, obviously,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "Finishing the game is No. 1."
Even in wins, the Celtics have had a bad habit of making things more interesting than they need to be. That’s put an increased stress on the starters, who have rarely reaped the benefits of light fourth-quarter lifting in a season with an unrelenting schedule.
"I think just blowing the lead is the toughest part," said Tatum, who willed Boston to overtime with his regulation heroics. "Obviously, we gave ourselves a chance in overtime but if we want to be a really good team we’ve got to put teams away earlier, especially being up 20-something points, but we let them come back."
There’s no way around it, the Celtics simply have not been a good team the past six weeks. While most teams in the East have struggled to generate momentum, the Celtics are floundering as the 76ers and Nets start to create a little separation at the top of the East.
Boston wouldn’t be hosting a first-round playoff series if the postseason started today and they are a half-game away from being a play-in team. Woof.
With Smart likely sidelined until after the early March All-Star break and with many NBA teams uncertain if they’ll be sellers because of clogged standings and the additional play-in slots, Boston seems stuck trying to simply survive until the All-Star break arrives.
Fresh bodies alone, however, will not change this team’s trajectory. Celtics players need to have some difficult conversations about this team's lack of consistency and all that ails them with nearly 42 percent of the season in the rearview mirror.
It’s getting harder to cling to the optimism about what this team can be. Sure, Tatum and Brown means there’s always a chance. But even some really good basketball from them has rarely resulted in easy wins.
The Celtics don’t lack for talent. If they had throttled the Pelicans, the buzz here would probably be a whole lot more optimistic. But every time we started wondering if everything written here was reactionary to a really bad loss, we’d look back at the standings.
Fifteen and fifteen.
This roller coaster ride needs to end.