Kyrie Irving’s dissection of his younger teammates during a mid-January stumble captured the fits-and-starts nature of the Celtics’ 2018-19 season, a campaign marked by languorous stretches of .500 ball punctuated briefly by blasts of excellence. But the Celtics had bounced back from that three-game skid to win 10 of their next 11—with their lone loss coming by four points in a heavyweight battle with the Warriors—and blitz opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions during that stretch. Whether spurred by the power of reconciliation, fueled by defiant rejection of the notion that his future is contingent on anyone’s choices but his own, or just locked into a special groove, Irving was incinerating defenses. A healthy-again Al Horford resumed his role as the rising tide that lifts all of Boston’s boats. Jaylen Brown was in the flow, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier were shooting like Splash Brothers, Aron Baynes was connecting defensive dots: It looked like things had finally clicked into place in Boston.
So, naturally, we open this week with renewed consideration of The Celtics In Crisis.
What looked to some observers like a smooth stretch of road in the schedule turned into a suspension-jarring pothole, as the Celtics dropped two exceedingly winnable home games in stunning fashion. First, they lost a post-deadline meeting with a Lakers team fresh off the disappointment of not landing Anthony Davis, thanks to a knife-twisting buzzer-beater by former Celtic hero Rajon Rondo. Then, on Saturday, they fell to the Clippers, who started a lineup that had never played together after reshuffling their roster at the deadline, and who roared back to overtake the C’s after Irving left the game late with a sprained right knee that, thankfully, isn’t considered serious.
The Celtics held an 18-point first-half lead against the Lakers, and a 28-point first-half lead over the Clips. But they got blitzed in the third quarters of both games, allowed a 42-point frame in both games, and wound up losing both games. Boston exits the weekend in fifth place in the East, as close in the standings to the sixth-place Brooklyn Nets as they are to the first-place Milwaukee Bucks. And that’s not the worst of it.
After Saturday’s loss, Celtics coach Brad Stevens praised L.A. coach (and his Boston predecessor) Doc Rivers for instilling the “teamness and resolve” the Clippers have shown all season, all of which was on display in the second-half surge that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. “You don’t come back from 20-point deficits if you don’t really like each other, and really pull for each other, and I think that those guys show that, night after night,” Stevens told reporters.
Understanding that he’d just left an obvious, deafeningly unspoken other half to that equation floating in the ether, Stevens used a follow-up question to clarify that he believes his players also like each other: “I don’t want that taken out of context.” Marcus Morris, though, cast doubt on that notion in the losing locker room, crediting the Clippers as a tougher, more aggressive team before doubling back to say they were “way tougher, way more aggressive—and I emphasize the word ‘team.’”
In a pretty stark and somber media session, Morris suggested that the Celtics’ .625 winning percentage and third-best net rating are disguising a fundamental absence. From the outside, they look like a Maserati. Pop the hood, though, and maybe there’s no engine.
“For me, it’s not really about the loss—it’s about the attitudes that we’re playing with,” Morris said. “You know, guys are hanging their heads. It just doesn’t—it’s not fun. It’s not fun. We’re not competing at a high level. Even though we’re winning, it’s still not fun. I don’t see the joy in the game.
“I watch all these other teams around the league, and guys are up on the bench. They’re jumping on the court. They’re doing all other stuff that look like they’re enjoying their teammates’ success. They’re enjoying everything, and they’re playing together, and they’re playing to win. And when I look at us, I just see a bunch of individuals.”
That’s a pretty damning statement. Morris didn’t name names, but he repeatedly emphasized the value of sacrifice—“It’s not about shots, it’s not about locking down minutes, it’s not about that; it’s about trying to win the game, man”—and the importance of starting from the position that the most important thing is collective success.
That kind of makes you think that, several weeks of strong play aside, the Celtics might be suffering from the same problems now that they were when Smart upbraided his teammates back in November for not consistently playing hard, or when Irving piped up following last month’s loss in Orlando. All season long, there’s seemed to be a split between Boston’s established veterans, the ones who might view this collection of talent as their best or last shot at being on a title contender, and the Celtics’ young players, the ones who helped propel last season’s push to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals only to be asked to take on smaller roles … and who maybe couldn’t help but overhear all that chatter about how Magic Johnson’s loss at Thursday’s trade deadline might wind up being Danny Ainge’s gain come the summer.
Before the AD bidding or Kyrie’s free agency, though, comes the nettlesome matter of playing out the rest of this season. The Celtics can’t afford to look past what promises to be an absolutely brutal road through the Eastern playoffs, with all three of their top competitors for the conference’s crown making significant additions at the trade deadline.
The Bucks have been the class of the conference virtually all season long. The Raptors began life with Marc Gasol by bringing him off the bench in a win that offered reasons for optimism about how he might fit in. The 76ers have looked absolutely phenomenal since landing Tobias Harris. (And quiet as it’s kept, the Pacers have bounced back from four straight losses after Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury with five consecutive wins to move back into third place; discount them at your own risk.)
The Celtics have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the beasts of the East and come out ahead, going 5-2 thus far this season against Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Toronto combined. And maybe all Boston needs is a big win to settle its churning stomach; knocking the revamped Sixers down a peg on Tuesday might be just what the doctor ordered. But the longer these persistent issues linger, the more tenuous the Celtics’ chances of pulling it all together in time seem.
To be fair, it’s not impossible to make a deep playoff run amid internal turmoil. The Bulls finished off their second three-peat despite the intra-squad squabbling of Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, and Jerry Krause. The early-aughts Lakers won three straight titles despite the tension between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. After sweeping the Cavaliers, David West insisted that last season’s Warriors went through “some things internally [that would make us] trip.” You don’t have to like your coworkers to do good work. It sure doesn’t hurt, though.
Stevens sounds ready to go back to the drawing board, to take a fresh look at anything that might keep Boston cranking in the guts of the game. “I think I need to look at myself first and figure out what I can do to help that not happen,” he told reporters after Saturday’s loss. “If that means we need to play different rotations, call different things, start differently in quarters … whatever the case may be, there’s an answer out there and we need to find it.”
Maybe it’s another lineup change, or an altered substitution pattern, or some new actions. Maybe, though, it needs to be something a bit less left-brain, and a bit more elemental. “You’re competing for a championship, and that’s how we’ve got to approach these games, win, lose, or draw, man,” Morris said Saturday. “We’re gonna lose games, but if we don’t have no attitude, we don’t have no toughness, we ain’t having fun … you know, it’s gonna be a long season.”
Or, more to the point: it won’t. Asked in his post-loss presser if all the peaks and valleys have become Boston’s identity, and if that’s just who this season’s Celtics are, Stevens offered a curt reply: “Well, if it is, we won’t last long. So at least you know, right?”
With two months left before the playoffs, that’s about all we know. Right now, there is no joy in Boston. A shot at a championship, and at locking in the core of a perpetual contender, might rest on Stevens finding some.