Thirty-six games into what has been a feel-good, it’s-safe-to-like-these-guys-again season, your 2019-20 Boston Celtics have officially driven into a rut.
They have lost three games in a row for the first time this season. Two of the losses came against teams below .500 (Bradley Beal-less Wizards, Spurs). The third loss came Thursday night against a Joel Embiid-less Sixers team that is now 3-0 against the Celtics this season. Philly is a severely flawed team, but as constructed, it could be a significant impediment to the Celtics’ grander aspirations in the postseason.
While coach Brad Stevens said he found some encouraging moments in the loss to the Sixers — the collective effort was certainly greater than it was against the Wiz or Spurs — he also acknowledged that he’s had some concerns about his team’s play since the stirring Christmas Day win over the defending champion Raptors.
And with good reason: His Celtics went 4-4 in that stretch, with the wins coming against the Cavaliers, Hawks, Hornets, and Bulls, teams that are a combined 47-107. There was a 16-point loss in a rematch with the Raptors in that stretch, and a sluggish 5-point loss to a Wizards team that had a starting five of Ian Mahinmi, Jordan McRae, Isaac Bonga, Gary Payton (the son, not the late-career Celtic), and old friend Isaiah Thomas. Not exactly the reincarnation of the ’86 Celtics there.
The slump has caused the 25-11 Celtics to dip to third in the Eastern Conference, behind the Runnin’ Giannises in Milwaukee (33-6) and a stunningly excellent Heat team (27-10, and we can agree Erik Spoelstra is going to the Hall of Fame someday, right?). As of Friday afternoon, the Celtics led the Raptors — who are 25-13 despite losing Pascal Siakam for 11 games — by just a game for the No. 3 spot.
Yep. It’s a rut. Definitely a rut.
Know what else? I’m not worried that it’s anything more than that. You?
Oh, I do believe that we’re going to learn something significant and definitive about them over the next few weeks. They have 18 games remaining between now and the All-Star break, which begins Feb. 14. In that stretch, they have some relative lightweights, including two games with the Hawks and two with the Pelicans (who may or may not have Zion Williamson back at some point), including Saturday.
But they also play the Heat, Bucks, and Lakers (combined current record: 93-23) in a 13-day span. They’re going to have opportunities to beat up subpar teams, and they’re going to have a chance to prove they can beat good ones (they’re just 7-7 against teams above .500).
They’re going to have opportunities to show a lot of things, to reveal who they really are, and to prove how much different they really are from last year’s woefully underachieving team, which had more raw talent but very little fight, unless we’re talking about the passive-aggressive kind among themselves.
I fully expect them to prove, often enough against excellent opponents and for the vast majority of time against inferior ones, that the faith we’ve had in them during the first 40 percent or so of this season will be rewarded. I know what a team headed toward disarray looks like; the memories of last year remain a stain on our basketball consciousness. This isn’t last year, and this is not that team.
Yes, some of the cast is the same. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have slumped recently, which shouldn’t be unexpected. The team has played five games in seven days, with three on the road, a rough January grind that tends to lead to ruts. The two were a combined 6 for 25 against the Sixers Thursday. But both — especially Brown — have taken huge steps forward in their development this season.
They’re not perfect — someone please get Tatum a copy of the “Dwyane Wade Guide to Finishing at the Rim” — but they’re better, and that speaks to their talent and conscientiousness, knowing that they needed to improve after last year and doing something about it.
The Celtics need more from Gordon Hayward, who does a swell job initiating the offense but still slips into bouts of passivity when looking for his own offense. In nine games since coming back from his latest injury, he’s averaging just 14.8 points. He’s shooting just 33 percent from three in that stretch. Sometimes it seems like as he goes, so go the Celtics. Well, get going again, Gordo.
On the plus side, this team is finally healthy. Kemba Walker, who is, oh, 97 percent of the player Kyrie Irving is and about 179 degrees better as a teammate, has his legs back after battling the flu and was very good against the Sixers, with 26 points. He is the fundamental difference between this year and last, but not the only one.
I miss Al Horford — that 17-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist line he put up Thursday was quintessential Good Al — but Enes Kanter has brought toughness and fun to the lineup. It’s nice to have a ferocious offensive rebounder for the first time since, gee, maybe Paul Silas.
And of course, Marcus Smart remains the heartbeat of it all, even if he remains the ultimate no-no-yes shooter.
I’ve seen enough from this team this year to know it has camaraderie, chemistry, and a collective conscience. They admit when they need to play better, and then far more often than not, they go out and do something about it. This is not a team that spews empty platitudes and faux-thoughtful big-picture insights, then repeats the same selfish mistakes the next time out. They won’t be defined by an inability to overcome tough times.
It would be easy to say we’re about to find out how much different this team is from last year’s now that it is struggling. But if you’ve been paying attention before this temporary rut, you already know how much better it is this year. It’s going to be awfully satisfying to watch them pull themselves up and prove it again.