I had to search my Boston sports soul and the recesses of my brain to put into perspective just how confounding, frustrating, and disappointing this Celtics season of great expectations gone awry has been. Then an appropriate parallel popped to mind.
The Celtics are the most disappointing Boston sports team since the infamous and ignominious 2011 Red Sox, another team loaded with talent that wasted it — and our time. That infamous and ignominious Sox team was famously declared the “Best Team Ever!” on the front page of the Boston Herald. Pitcher Josh Beckett said the team had a chance to do “something really, really special.”
Sound familiar, Celtics fans?
Instead, that Sox team is remembered for all the wrong reasons, for free-falling out of the playoffs in a haze of fried chicken, beer, impudence, and indifference, for being an incredible waste of talent.
Unless they can salvage their season with a Patriotesque postseason revival, these Celtics are destined to join the 2011 Red Sox in the pantheon of biggest Boston sports flops. The epitaph for the 2011 Red Sox was provided by outgoing GM Theo Epstein: “There was a lot of talent in that clubhouse, and we didn’t get results commensurate with that talent.”
Swap clubhouse for locker room and you have the 2018-19 Celtics. All that’s missing is superstar Kyrie Irving complaining about playing too many nationally televised night games and declaring their plight God’s plan, a la Adrian Gonzalez.
By nature of the NBA’s more forgiving postseason format, the Celtics will be playoff participants, unlike those Sox, but that doesn’t blunt the failure of a shambolic season for the shamrocks.
It’s unfathomable that this team is 44-31 after Tuesday night’s layup-line difficulty contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers (a 116-106 win), just snapped a season-high-tying four-game losing streak, and is without home-court advantage in a single round of the playoffs as the fifth seed — Fifth! — in the Eastern Conference. The erstwhile Golden State Warriors of the East were supposed to make the conference their eminent domain, now they’re scrounging just to back-door into the fourth seed.
Prior to the season, the Celtics embraced the lofty expectations for the regular season that came with their loaded roster. Now, we have masterful yet mercurial Irving sitting out against his former team because of “load management,” the new NBA argot for rest. With their season-long struggles defining them, the Celtics have conveniently resorted to declaring the regular season irrelevant.
Blowing an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday and then getting blown out by the San Antonio Spurs by 19 points on Sunday — their largest home loss of the season — when they’re ostensibly getting primed for that deep playoff run is meaningless. The Celtics keep insisting that they’ll summon their best basketball when it matters most. But we have 70-plus games of mounting evidence that says otherwise.
Every season that Brad Stevens has coached the Celtics, the team has increased its win total — from 25 to 40 to 48 to 53 to 55 wins last season. They won’t do it this year. Now they need to win six of their final seven games just to reach 50 wins.
The Green have called so many useless team meetings they should have a project manager. There was another after the loss to the Spurs. What happened to the comity-in-the-clouds plane ride before the team’s West Coast trip, hailed as a hoops panacea when the Celtics won the first three games of that four-game stint? That was supposed to mark the California turning of the corner for the Green. The Celtics are 3-5 since winning the first three games of that sojourn.
The Celtics have taken the parquet path of most resistance all season long, vacillating between defiance and dejection, boasting and braying, chest-pounding and finger-pointing. They’ve searched for consistency and accountability. They lack emotional equanimity and humility.
“It’s not just about riding the wave of the good times and the praise and the pats on the back,” said Stevens following the loss to the Spurs. “It’s about buckling down when things are hard, getting back up off the mat, writing your own ending, and doing everything you can to be the best you can when it’s all on the line.
“I don’t think we’ve given any reason to suggest that right now, but I think ultimately we’ll see how the rest of this story plays itself out.”
The most troubling aspect of the Celtics’ play recently has been their defensive futility. Entering Tuesday, the Celtics had allowed 112.4 points per game since the All-Star break while allowing opponents to shoot 46.7 percent. Over their previous seven games, the Celtics surrendered 121.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting. The Atlanta Hawks have allowed the most points per game this season at 118.6.
Defense is a reflection of focus, execution, and togetherness. All attributes the Celtics have struggled to establish this season.
Perhaps the most pertinent and alarming similarity between this Celtics team and the 2011 Red Sox is the lack of unity and esprit de corps. It’s the area where the teams appear most similar.
Sure, there’s a little whiff of Carl Crawford to the Gordon Hayward signing thus far with a small-market franchise player underwhelming in Boston. But there are extenuating circumstances that have prevented us from seeing Hayward’s greatness in green, namely a left ankle that snapped like a twig the first time he took the court as a Celtic. It’s not a fair comparison yet.
Comparing the lack of camaraderie is fair. The Celtics seem disconnected from each other. Irving has used the young guys as fall guys for the team’s Jekyll-and-Hyde hoops. Jaylen Brown publicly admonished him for it.
A genuine lack of fellowship was a problem for the Fenway Park folks in 2011, and exiled manager Terry Francona recognized it.
“Teams normally, as the season progresses, there’s events that make you care about each other, and with this club, it didn’t always happen as much as I wanted it to,” remarked Francona in the wake of the September collapse. “And I was frustrated by that.”
Ultimately, any comparisons drawn between a Boston sports team and the 2011 Red Sox represent an unflattering portrait. The Celtics still have time to avoid the fate that befell those reviled Red Sox.
But if the Celtics turn it around in the playoffs, I don’t want to hear from dyed-in-Green fans that they were improperly doubted or dismissed during the regular season. Nope, the lack of faith is their own fault.
“I think we’re to the point now where, rightfully so, we’ll be doubted,” Stevens said Sunday. “Rightfully so, we’ve earned that.”
They have earned it, along with a comparison to the most inglorious of Boston sports teams.