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The Celtics Might Have Too Much of a Good Thing

Boston has spent most of its season struggling, despite its loaded roster and ace coach. Is the team being held back by its abundance of talent?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When a team with little elite talent starts winning, we look for some other explanation for the surprising performance—lineup changes, play-calling shifts, schematic adjustments. Sometimes, though, we chalk it up to the intangible impact of good chemistry; of such teams, we might say, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Kind of a backhanded compliment, sure, but it could be worse: The math could tilt the other way. That seems to be the case right now in Boston, where a loaded Celtics team that entered the season expected to vie for the NBA’s best record continues to stumble on the rocky road to supremacy in a post-LeBron Eastern Conference.

The C’s enter Monday’s matchup with the surging Brooklyn Nets coming off a weekend to forget (and without Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart). First, they got drilled on national TV on Thursday by the barely-.500 Miami Heat in a game that featured Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris shoving each other during a timeout. Then, after two days of dismissing that scuffle, and the resultant coverage, as much ado about nothing, Boston dropped another decision to the decidedly-sub-.500 Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Boston collapsed in the fourth quarter against what had been the NBA’s third-worst final-frame team, then clawed back from a nine-point deficit in the final two minutes to earn a chance to force overtime or go for the win with 2.9 seconds to go. Irving didn’t seem particularly thrilled with what head coach Brad Stevens drew up in the huddle …

... and after the Celtics came away with a contested jumper by Jayson Tatum that went awry …

… Irving pressed inbounder Gordon Hayward on why he didn’t run the designed play—a pass to Al Horford popping above the 3-point arc, who could then hand off to and screen for Irving slicing toward the basket out of the backcourt—and instead looked Tatum’s way:

Irving’s frustration carried over from the court into the visiting dressing room at Amway Center. After scoring 15 of his 25 points in the fourth to get Boston back within striking distance, only to end the game as an onlooker to Tatum’s baseline fadeaway, Irving first simmered; for a while, he reportedly sat “at his locker just staring straight ahead,” not even getting up to shower until well after most of his teammates had already left the arena. When asked about that final play, he replied, “Next play … JT got a good look. Move on.”

His tone changed, though, when asked about what’s behind the Celtics’ ups and downs this year—the sluggish 10-10 start, the eight-game winning streak fueled by a lineup change, and the roller-coaster ride of a 7-7 record over the past month. Taken as a whole, Boston has the profile of a contender: a top-10 offensive mark (that soars even higher when Irving’s on the floor) and a top-five defense that make for the league’s second-best net rating, a roster that goes 10 deep with starter-caliber performers, and a coach widely respected as one of the sport’s best tacticians. So why has a team that added two healthy All-Stars (Irving and Hayward) to a core that pushed LeBron’s Cavs to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals had such a hard time locking into a rhythm?

Asked that, the 26-year-old ballhandling artist tasked with leading the Celtics back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010 traded in his simmer for a rolling boil.

Irving highlighted the lack of experience in some corners of the roster: “When it gets hard, you’ve got to think. You’ve got to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play. You’ve got to be able to play the full 48 minutes, no matter what’s going on, and hold your head high when you make mistakes.” (Somewhere, a 15-year vet who used to play with Irving is probably smiling and nodding.)

He spoke of the value of game-by-game preparation, and of seeing “the big picture”: “These are things I don’t think some of my teammates have faced, of just every single day. It’s not easy to be great. So the things you’re doing, that you’ve done your entire career, of being able to coast by in certain situations, and you’ve gotten away with your youth and stuff like that. Being on a championship ball club, you can’t get away with that.”

He discussed the difference between striving to become a contender and entering a season already expected to be one: “We had nothing to lose last year. We had nothing to lose, and everybody could play free and do whatever they wanted, and nobody had any expectations. We were supposed to be at a certain point, we surpassed that. Young guys were supposed to be at a certain point, they surpassed that. We come into this season, expectations, and it’s real. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players, it’s very much real, every single day, so that’s new. It’s tough.”

Irving pumped the brakes a bit on Monday morning, telling reporters that he “never [wants] to question [his] teammates publicly,” and that such comments are born of a burning desire to win, not malice. But whether or not Kyrie named names—and for what it’s worth, that bit about not being able to get away with certain things on a championship-level team sounds an awful lot like what he told Jackie MacMullan for a story about Brown’s early-season woes—it’s tough not to see something pointed in his broader line of questioning, something perhaps echoed by fellow veteran linchpin Al Horford after the loss in Orlando:

What’s behind those lapses in effort remains an open question, though it might be one with an eminently human answer. In a league where depth matters more than ever, Boston remains burdened by an overabundance.

Stevens must find the balance between showcasing Irving as his signature creator while affording Tatum the space to grow into a featured offensive performer. He has to bring Hayward along as a complementary contributor, while also finding enough shots and opportunities for Brown and Terry Rozier to shine in their circumscribed roles as seventh and eighth men.

He has to keep everybody engaged enough on offense to remain locked in defensively, where the Celtics have slipped without Aron Baynes; Boston has allowed 108.6 points per 100 possessions in the 12 games since losing the big man to a broken bone in his left hand, up from 102.9 points per 100 possessions before his injury (and just 97.3 points per 100 possessions with Baynes on the court). He has to do it without allowing fractures and factions to develop in the locker room ... and, given the Morris-Brown incident and Irving’s pointed postgame comments, it seems like the cracks are starting to show.

That happens when you’re under pressure; halfway through a season that seemed destined for 60 wins and a no. 1 seed, the Celtics sit at 25-17, six games behind the top-seeded Raptors. But there’s pressure and then there’s pressure, and that seems to be what’s getting under Irving’s skin most—that a team that needs to be preparing itself for June, for the crucible of the brightest spotlights and the biggest stages, is allowing itself to get derailed in January.

“It’s hard, you know, so I think that what we’re facing now is nothing compared to being on that stage trying to get a gold trophy,” he said after the loss in Orlando. “It’s hard now. What do you think it’s going to be when we get to the Finals?”

That “when” might be the loudest word Irving spoke in a resounding response, and it speaks to the state of play in Boston. The Celtics lack nothing; with Irving, Horford, and Hayward healthy, they have everything they need to be exactly who we all expected to them to be. At the moment, though, that kind of seems like the problem. When can a team be less than the sum of its parts? Maybe when it has too much of a good thing.