Jaylen Brown summed up the Boston Celtics' woes best after the team’s latest head-shaking defeat Monday night in Houston.
"Little stuff goes a long way," sighed Brown.
It’s something that head coach Joe Mazzulla has harped on lately: that the Celtics just haven’t put in the necessary effort to win on the margins. It’s easy to obsess about missed 3-point shots but so much of what ails Boston tends to come back to effort and focus.
This team’s utter inability to lock in for 48 minutes has continually come back to bite them this season.
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More concerning is a general lack of urgency in fixing those issues. It sometimes feels like the Celtics are content to stumble their way to the postseason with hopes that a bigger stage will deliver the urgency that they can’t always summon on a sleepy Monday against a team with the worst record in the Western Conference.
That’s a dangerous game to play. We keep repeating the same question with this team: Are the Celtics willing to put in the effort to be great? It sometimes feels like Boston has an inflated sense of potential based on what this team accomplished at the end of last season and the start of this new campaign.
But it rarely works like that. Maybe we just have PTSD from all those "flip the switch" years where Kyrie Irving promised the talent-filled Celtics would eventually find their way (only to leave the team in rubble after a disappointing playoff exit).
There’s less than a month left in the regular season and here’s just a brief synopsis of where things stand:
- Boston has stumbled to the No. 2 seed after spending most of the season seemingly entrenched at the top of the East, while the Philadelphia 76ers have moved within a game of the Celtics at No. 3.
- Boston’s offense, on a historic pace over the first quarter of the season, is tied for 15th overall since December 10. That’s more than a half season worth of games where the Celtics have been a middling offense prone to painful scoring lulls when 3-point shots are not falling.
- Boston watched top assistant Damon Stoudamire depart after Monday’s game in Houston. While players are thrilled that Stoudamire is getting a head-coaching opportunity at Georgia Tech, it takes away a coach who had a good pulse on the locker room and an ability to offer a player's perspective, particularly in Mazzulla’s first year in the big seat.
- The Celtics’ defense hasn’t played anywhere near the level we saw last season when that group was the backbone of the team. The absence of Robert Williams III in recent games has only accentuated that defensive deficiency.
- Boston’s rotations are unclear with 13 games remaining. Mazzulla has hunted for the right depth pieces in recent weeks, with Blake Griffin getting more opportunity while Grant Williams’ role has dwindled. But even beyond that, Boston’s uneven play in critical moments leaves questions about what exactly is the team's best crunch-time lineup.
There are simply too many question marks at the moment. Ask a member of the Celtics what’s most troubling about their recent unevenness and you get varied responses.
Mazzulla’s focus is on the margins. He’s big on Four Factors (shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throws) and lamented how Boston got dominated in those categories on Monday night.
"Regardless of who you play, that’s playoff basketball at its finest, the ability to win those situations," said Mazzulla. "So it’s concerning that we’re inconsistent in that and we have to be committed to those regardless of who we’re playing, regardless of the situation, regardless of how many games are left, it doesn’t matter. You have to be committed to those."
Jayson Tatum fretted Boston’s slow starts and took individual blame for that in Monday’s loss. Brown worried about the defense and yearns for that to be the calling card of the team like it was last year.
Brown calls out Celtics' lack of effort after loss to lowly Rockets
Tatum hasn’t shot the ball particularly well since his MVP performance at All-Star weekend. Sometimes the root of Boston’s struggles simply reverts to needing Tatum to be great.
Marcus Smart has seemingly strayed from the playmaking/defense focus that typically delivers his best basketball. Since returning from an ankle injury, his shot attempts are up and his assists are down. The Celtics desperately need him to spearhead a defensive resurgence.
In Smart’s defense, Boston seems to be tasking Tatum with running the offense more lately:
The Celtics need to tap back into what made them great. But it starts with just playing harder on both ends. Tatum needs to be engaged out of the gates, Smart needs to quarterback the offense and push the pace, and everyone needs to be better at the fundamentals of boxing out and rebounding given the size the team generally lacks.
Boston needs to figure out who it wants to be and make every effort to be that team. Winning ugly masked a lot the slippage on both ends in the middle of the season. The Celtics desperately need some urgency before the playoffs arrive.
But it keeps coming back to the same question: Are the Celtics willing to work to find those answers? If they do, they have unlimited postseason potential.
If they don’t, they are essentially just crossing their fingers.