Brad Stevens warned everyone. After the Celtics’ 16-game winning streak was finally snapped earlier this year, he admitted that the impressive run of wins right after the team lost Gordon Hayward was “a little bit of a mirage.” Still, though, Boston was at the top of the Eastern Conference for most of the first two thirds of the NBA season, destroying everyone with the NBA’s best defense and MVP-level play from Kyrie Irving. They even blew out the Cavs in early January.
Things aren’s as rosy on the eve of the All-Star break. After dropping a 129-119 home game to the Clippers yesterday, the Celtics have now lost three games in a row and nine out of their last 15, including blowout losses to the East’s other two elite teams. The Clippers loss was the second game in a row that Boston has given up a season-high in points, and Stevens was frank in his assessment of the Celtics’ recent struggles, acknowledging that he might shake up the starting lineup:
“It’s going to be a tough ending if we don’t change a little bit, and I’ll look at what I can change, as well,” a visibly discouraged Stevens said after Wednesday’s loss. “I think we’re probably due for some of that.”
Pressed on potential changes, Stevens said he’ll examine all aspects of Boston’s play.
“We’ll look at everything,” Stevens said. “Obviously, you’re always looking for small tweaks defensively and offensively, but we haven’t gotten enough out of our rotations and subs and all those things. We’ll take a deeper dive into that.”’
Kyrie Irving also hinted that the team needed to refocus and maintain an energy that has perhaps begun to slip lately. “Going into All-Star break, I’m thinking about what’s happening after,” Irving said. “How we respond and what we’re doing after and where our focus is and where we are mentally.”
The Celtics are obviously still very good, though with Toronto’s excellent season and a post-trade resurgence possibly in the cards for Cleveland, they’re very clearly no longer the top dog. They still have the NBA’s best defensive rating at 103.2 points per 100 possessions, but they’ve slipped back to 106.1 over their last 10 games. That would still be the fifth-best mark in the NBA this season, and that entire period has come without attack dog Marcus Smart. Despite the worrying signs from the last two games, Boston’s biggest problem remains its offense.
Dynamic young wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who were pivotal to Boston’s hot start, have had rough starts to the new year. Brown is shooting 42 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from three since Jan. 1, and both marks are well below his respective season averages of 45.6 and 37.8 percent. Tatum has been experiencing an analogous and even more severe dip, shooting 41.9 percent from the field and 33 percent from three since the start of 2018, down from season clips of 47.5 and 42.7, respectively.
Now, Tatum and Brown aren’t the most critical pieces of Boston’s offense, but the team has little wing depth to speak of, and when neither of them are hitting, the team’s spacing can become somewhat gummy. Marcus Smart can’t shoot worth a damn, but when Tatum and Brown are shooting well, they create the space that Al Horford and Irving need for their deadly two-man game (Horford is actually the most efficient three-point shooter on the team). The surprisingly large effect of Tatum’s newfound acquaintance with the rookie wall was evident a few weeks ago, when the Celtics went on a little slide.
It’s easy to forget, however, that Brown is in his second year, while Tatum is a literal teenager. The All-Star break could not have come at a better time, and once Marcus Smart comes back and takes up some of the defensive load that’s probably tiring them out, both young players seem like they’ll bounce back. But for all the talent they possess and for how otherworldly Irving has been, they haven’t consistently shown that they’re significantly better than an NBA average offense.
Considering that they’ve done it all (save for, uh, five minutes) without Gordon Hayward, their 40-19 record is very impressive. Hell, it’d be impressive even with him in the fold. The plan was never necessarily for the Celtics to compete for a championship this year, and the fact that they’re starting to settle out shouldn’t even come as a surprise. Irving is still a madman with the ball and he’s proved he can well and truly Do It in the playoffs. Feel free to worry, because, sure, they can struggle with their shooting from time to time, but the Celtics will be, broadly speaking, fine.