It’s tempting to push the parquet panic button.
Plagued by inconsistency and backbiting, the Celtics have failed to live up to expectations. The Green are the antithesis of gestalt. They’re less than the sum of their individual parts and more of a soap opera than an NBA Finals contender.
Veteran Marcus Morris cried no joy after Saturday night’s ignominious home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who rallied from 28 points down to humble the Celtics. Kyrie Irving appears to be wavering on his preseason pledge to re-up with the Celtics and departed Saturday’s game in the second quarter after injuring his right knee.
This wasn’t the plan. But rarely in sports does reality trace expectation.
If we learned anything from the Patriots’ Super Bowl run, it’s not to prematurely condemn a team built to contend for a title. We’re spoiled here in the Hub of Hoops because we watched the 2007-08 Boston Celtics of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and Kendrick Perkins establish instant chemistry and instant results. We expected the same of a team with Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. The New Big Three Celtics made big name, big-ego ensemble basketball look easy. It’s not. It’s complicated and messy.
The basketball gods have a sense of humor, because last week the Celtics were haunted by the ghosts of the ’07-08 championship squad in back-to-back dispiriting losses. It was the coach of that Celtics team, Doc Rivers, who presided on the bench as his reconfigured Clippers sent the Celtics spiraling to rock bottom, one game after Rondo’s loose-ball buzzer-beater for the LA Lakers stunned Boston. Rivers’s Clippers executed a comeback vaguely reminiscent of the one that his Celtics staged against the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals.
The last Celtics banner bunch is responsible for the belief that this Celtics team would coalesce into a contender as soon as they rolled out the basketballs.
“It’s the expectation. Listen, we had some veterans, too. Kevin and Paul and Ray were ready, you know,” said Rivers, prior to Saturday’s game. “You have Gordon and Horford and Kyrie, and then you have to get the young guys. It’s hard, though. It really is.
“This team, I was looking at their second unit, and I was like, ‘Holy Goodness.’ But it’s only one ball. It’s only five guys that get to play at a time. Even when the five guys are on the floor, it’s usually only two guys that are involved at each moment of each play.
“It’s all about winning. When that becomes the major focus it works out. I do think when the playoffs start that happens more. It’s easier because it is winning time when the playoffs start, so I look at them I think they’re in a fine place. They’ll be fine. I don’t see it as an issue. We won a lot. So, that made it look easier. The winning covered up a lot of stuff. It does. So, I think it looked easy.”
Rivers knows better — and the challenge for Brad Stevens. It wasn’t easy. For a coach having an abundance of talent is both a blessing and a curse. It makes it harder to carve out defined roles when there are several players believing they’re capable of a leading role. Teams like the New Big Three Celtics and the Golden State Warriors, who have dealt with their own friction and finger-pointing this season, are the exception, not the rule.
Still, there are no excuses for the Celtics. Every time it looks as if they’ve found their groove, they lose their grip. The Celtics have too many preachers and not enough parishioners. They have too many team meetings and not enough team unity. They ride the results roller-coaster too much — boasting when they beat contenders like Toronto and sulking when they lose to lesser teams. They don’t display enough resolve.
The Celtics were winners of 10 of 11 games, the only loss coming to the Warriors, before blowing double-digit leads at home in consecutive games against the NBA’s Los Angeles entries. The Celtics led by as many as 18 in the first half against LeBron’s Lakers, but fell, 129-128. After going up, 68-40, with 4:39 left in the first half, the Celtics were outscored, 83-44, the rest of the way by the post-trade deadline patchwork Clippers.
Now the Celtics are back at square one and having no fun. Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson targeted the wrong local sports team for a fun issue.
“I mean, it hasn’t been fun for a long time, man,” said Morris, sounding an alarm more serious and ominous than the squandering of large leads. “It hasn’t been fun for a long time, whether we’re winning or not. The attitude is, it is what it is.”
A candid Morris lamented the Celtics’ lack of emotional investment in each other during games and the team’s compete level. He said, “For us to be a championship team, something has to change.”
He’s right. Something does have to change, but with the NBA trade deadline passed and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge holding fast, it’s not going to be the composition of the roster.
The Celtics have to figure this out with who and what they’ve got. There are no easy outs for the players or for Stevens, who pledged to find the answer after Saturday night’s meltdown.
Stevens is used to teams with built-in compete compasses. He is used to a group aiming to establish it belongs, not one that behaves like it has already arrived. He is used to a team that plays with something to prove, not someone to lose (hello, Kyrie).
The Celtics can fix this. They have the talent. As of Sunday, Boston’s 6.4 points per game point differential was the third-best in the NBA, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks and the Warriors, owners of the two best records in the league.
It’s cohesion and commitment that need to be boosted, pronto. The Celtics have to put their talents and agendas through a colander and come out with a T-E-A-M in the next 26 games.
Listen to a sage old Celtic who has walked this path.
“Everyone has to sacrifice,” said Rivers. “If you think about [2007-08], all of them, their shots were cut from the year before. Every single player on the team, not just Ray, Paul, and Kevin . . . but everyone’s shots.
“You can’t just get something when you’re trying to win something. You got to give something. Then the sacrifice is what bonds you together a lot. Our guys all sacrificed.”
That’s the lesson from losses to old friends Rivers and Rondo. Even if these Celtics can’t live up to the expectations set by the ’07-08 team, they have to duplicate their sacrifice.
Christopher L Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.