The Celtics beat the Pacers 135-108 on Jan. 9. That capped a four-game win streak that was held up as evidence that the Celtics, thanks to a much-needed team meeting after a loss to the Bucks on Dec. 21, had finally rounded into form. Here is what has happened to the Celtics since: a 16-point loss to the Heat, a two-point loss to the Magic, and a seven-point loss to the Nets.
The particulars of those three losses only darken the situation. The Heat game featured Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris shoving each other during a timeout. The loss to the Magic left Kyrie Irving doing his best Exasperated LeBron impression after being used as a decoy on the final possession:
Irving followed that up by making some vague criticisms of his younger teammates, citing a lack of experience as the cause of Boston’s relatively disappointing season. “We’re lacking [experience], and because of that, we have a lot of learning to do,” he told reporters.
That brings us to last night’s game against the Nets, which Irving missed due to injury. The final margin was only seven points, but the Celtics spent the night getting their damn asses kicked. They gave up a 22-2 run during the Nets’ 44-point third quarter, and were down by 27 points with just under 10 minutes left to play. A strong fourth quarter from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum made the loss feel less disastrous, and it also gave Brown some room to push back on Irving’s big-brother routine. From the Boston Globe:
“We’ve just got to have each other’s backs at the end of the day,” Brown said.
“We can’t make comments. We can’t point fingers. We just have to continue to empower each other and have each other’s backs. If we don’t, if we start pointing fingers, everybody’s going to go into their own little shells. We’ve got to continue to play basketball. It starts from the top to the bottom. Not from the bottom to the top but the top to the bottom.”
It feels crazy to say that a team with a perfectly respectable 25-18 record is in an untenable situation, but there is just something off about the Celtics. The inability to deal with the expected problems—the bloated rotation, Tatum and Brown slumping, Hayward’s rust, etc.—has led to the rise of unexpected ones, like Brown and Irving sniping at each other through the press. Everyone on the roster is having a down season, none of them seem to like playing with each other all that much, and the team doesn’t have any real style or identity. After last night’s game, Morris came out and said as much, telling reporters, “I’d be lying if I said we knew our identity.”
A week ago it looked like the Celtics were about to enter a cleansing portion of the season. They had just smashed the Pacers, and the Heat, Magic, and Nets looked like prime targets to extend their winning streak to seven games and finally end all the fretting that’s been happening in Boston. Instead, they are right back where they have already been multiple times this season, trying to sort things out after yet another false dawn.
There’s time for Boston to get its shit together and go on another deep postseason run, but there may come a point when whatever is rotting this team spreads too far and too deep to ever be fully cut out. These issues can all compound until they get beyond anybody’s ability to fix or control. There’s still time, yes, but not that much time.