In the aftermath of the Boston Celtics’ latest crunch-time crumble, another soul-sucking loss to a supposedly inferior Kings team on Friday night, we were left thinking of something coach Brad Stevens said after the 2018-19 season.
That year, after a particularly trying season in which an impossibly talented team labored through a joyless campaign that culminated in a disappointing second-round playoff exit, Stevens expressed a desire to get back to being a team that Celtics fans could wrap their arms around. He wanted his Celtics to play with pride and the familiar grit that has defined this franchise.
Nineteen months later, it feels a bit like Groundhog Day. The 2020-21 Celtics, while not nearly as talented, collectively, as that 2018-19 squad, are a joyless bunch who have been unable to harness their potential. There are plenty of reasons for that, not the least of which are the extenuating circumstances of a pandemic season, but ultimately the product on the court has done little to inspire confidence and the team has woefully underperformed through the first 41 games of the season.
And, yet again, Stevens is left yearning for his players to play with heart and find joy on the basketball court.
Friday was a roller coaster of emotions. Marcus Smart sent up caution flags about the state of the team after shootaround while noting, "We're not having fun, we're not playing like we are having fun, we're not playing with that energy and same fire.” It sounded a bit like what another Marcus (in this case, Morris) said as the Celtics were navigating that 2018-19 disaster that saw Kyrie Irving flee in the aftermath.
For the rest of Friday afternoon, rumors swirled that Stevens was pondering accepting the men’s basketball job at Indiana University, something that was at least feasible given the tumultuous state of the 20-21 Celtics.
Instead, Stevens came out and emphatically denied the IU rumors in his pregame press conference. He preached a dedication to the Celtics. When Stevens delivered a line about being a 44-year-old Masshole who swerves on the roadways, drinks Dunkin, and roots for the Patriots, it felt like his The Wolf of Wall Street moment with Leonardo DiCaprio screaming, “I”m not (bleeping) leaving!”
Surely, that would inspire his team, right?
Nope. The Celtics came out and played energetic defense for about five minutes before their intensity waned. The Kings built a 15-point lead as Boston’s offense sputtered. The Celtics, sticking to this year’s script, rallied ahead in the fourth quarter only to endure the familiar crunch-time woes that have defined their season. Sacramento raced away to a 107-96 victory and its first win in Boston since Stevens was a 30-year-old rookie Butler coach who used proper directionals on midwest roadways, ate St. Elmo’s shrimp cocktail, and rooted for the Colts.
"I think we need to be more engaged in each other, and I think that teams are fragile things,” Stevens said in a postgame Zoom conference that sounded more like an online therapy session. "Guys are trying, and they are all really good guys trying, but sometimes even when you’re giving good effort, or you have a group of possessions that go pretty well, five guys engaged does a lot, and we just haven’t had that recently. And that’s concerning.
"We have to play as a team. We have to be able to move past a mistake or a missed shot or a missed opportunity or them banking a shot in from 3 and move on. And show a great mindset, show a little resolve and put that together throughout the game, and we have not done that. That is clear. And our challenge moving forward is the only way that happens is if we do it as a team. So got to get engaged in each other and you’ve got to fight through these tough times, and if you’re not going to do that, then there’s going to be a lot more tough times.”
Two-thirds of the way through the season, these Celtics don’t have an identity. They don’t lack for talent with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at the helm, and yet those All-Stars' inability to make the players around them better has contributed to Boston woes.
Most concerning, these Celtics crumble in tough moments, showing a lack of resolve with the games in the balance.
Boston is now a miserable 11-17 while playing a league-high 28 clutch games (score within 5 points, final 5 minutes). Boston’s offensive rating in 94 minutes of crunch-time play is a meager 98.5, ranking 27th in the league. Their net rating of minus-13.5 is 25th overall.
Opposing teams don’t even seem to sweat in crunch-time situations. They are acutely aware that Boston lacks a killer instinct and gleefully watches them fumble around while players like De’Aaron Fox go to another level to ensure his team emerges with the win.
The trade deadline looms in five days. We’ve spent much of the season pondering options that Danny Ainge could land with the aid of a $28.5 million traded player exception to inject some much-needed talent on this roster. Now, it’s fair to wonder if there’s any roster move that can really change the trajectory of the season.
But Ainge cannot sit on his hands. He has to do something to shake up this team, even if just a gentle jolt. He failed to do such in 2018-19 and admitted in the aftermath he should have decluttered that talented bunch.
Boston’s path back to being a legitimate contender, however, starts with the core working through whatever ails it. Players have hinted that strain off the court could be impacting them on the floor. And it’s absolutely understandable that the unique parameters of this COVID season have added stress to the team.
Maybe getting fans back at TD Garden next week will help. Maybe the long homestand that follows can inject some much-needed energy into this team. Maybe Ainge can fix some of his offseason missteps by tinkering with the roster at the deadline and better position his coach and players to succeed.
But everybody in the organization needs to do a little bit more. And this team desperately needs to find its missing joy. Because, right now, this Celtics team is not fun to watch and it goes well beyond their sub-.500 record.