Bipolar in Boston
When the Boston Celtics stayed pat at the trade deadline, the decision was met with a reluctant shrug from most of the fan base. Danny Ainge refused to move some of the most important pieces of his gritty, us vs. Them Suicide Squad for the quick hit. Paul George wasn’t a guarantee beyond next year as he publicly stated he would only sign long term with the Indiana Pacers or the Los Angeles Lakers. The Chicago Bulls wanted too much for Jimmy Butler who has proved to be an elite scorer but also has question marks concerning his attitude. Why not rock with what you got? The Celtics had just come of a blistering stretch of Kylie Jenner hot basketball, winning 18 of 24 since December 30th with wins against Toronto, Washington, Houston, and twice against a surging Utah squad over that period. With most of these occurring without the defensive spider monkey stylings of Avery Bradley, Ainge and the C’s were confident they had elevated their play to the level of the NBA elite and didn’t require the assistance of another superstar. The Celtics believed and went all in as the best underdog in the league. But being the best underdog in a landscape of underdogs unless your team is from Golden State, Cleveland, or San Antonio, still means there are flaws to your game, an ugly kraken that emerges from the inky depths to sink your team. The Celtics indeed have an ugly giant squid that keeps reappearing throughout the season and has dragged them to a loss on multiple occasions.
Since the All-Star break, the C’s are 3-2 with a brutal, bar fight of a win in Detroit and another win coming on Wednesday against the Eastern Conference leading Cleveland Cavilers minus JR Smith and Kevin Love. In these games Boston did what they do best. They spread the floor leaving room for Isiah Thomas to score (33 vs. Detroit, 31 vs. Cleveland), smothered the opposing team with straight jacket defense, and had the young players like Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown stepping up with plays not reflected in the box score but were invaluable in terms of timing. When the pieces fall in the right places for the Celtics, they get a swag about them evident in their demeanor and play. IT begins checking his watch, Smart and Brown trash talk like the ’08 squad, and Avery Bradley does his best wacky waving arm inflatable tube man impression. Last night’s rout against the Lakers showed the Celtics at their best, leading by as much as 33 at one point. Loose and free with the ball on offense, rotating like a Dropkick Murphy’s mosh pit on D, and sporting an all-around terrifying look like a tractor trailer being driven by a drunk Tommy Heinsohn: blue collar, loud, and dangerous.
For as good as the Celtics have looked in most of their games this year, there are ones where, well, not so much. The two L’s post break against Toronto and Atlanta have put a giant microscope on the problems that have plagued them in many of their losses. The game last Friday in Toronto is especially concerning. The C’s led by as many as 18 in the first half, beating the Raptors in every phase of the game, and it didn’t even look like they were breaking a sweat. Boston has struggled mightily against Drake’s favorite team but with a win against them in early January and the way things started in the last game, even with the addition of Serge Ibaka, Boston looked as if they had found a formula to consistently beat Toronto. That is until the second half when Raptors attacked Boston at the heart, consistently double teaming Isaiah Thomas, leaving little to no room to operate in space. Thomas’ speed is what allows him to over perform as a player at his height and when that is taken away, IT and the C’s are at a disadvantage. The Celtics are forced to look elsewhere for offense and to be totally honest, no one on the team is even close to being as consistent as IT on that side of the ball. Jae Crowder is the second best offensive player on the team and he’s a streaky shooter at best. When Thomas is nulled from the equation, Boston begins playing sloppy on offense with desperate passes evolving into a game of hot potato, forcing players into bad shots, rushed possessions, and a general look of confusion. The same thing happend on Monday night against Atlanta as IT was forced into double coverage under the basket and along the three-point line. The Celtics never came close to finding any semblance of an offense, shooting 39% as a team and turning the ball over 18 times. Having only one true scoring threat costs them in games where the guards on the other bench are fully capable of giving Thomas headaches. The rebounding effort in Boston is also still lacking. Atlanta was +9 against them in a game that saw Dwight Howard ejected in the third, leaving no real threat for the Hawks under the basket. While they ended up even with Toronto in rebounds, watching the C’s effort was maddening in that game as well. Loose balls not being chased, watching where the ball is and not where it’s going, and not boxing out the closest man, have all routinely plagued Boston throughout the season and in games where they lose, it seems to be exasperated three-fold. And, of course, there is the fact that Al Horford has forgotten how to play basketball. When the C’s brought him in over the summer, fans rejoiced in the acquisition of a big man who could score, rebound, and stretch the floor, a huge upgrade from Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger. But Horford’s first year in Boston has been lackluster to say the least and at times, he looks unconfident and bewildered by his poor play. He currently has career low numbers in FG% and offensive rebounds, yet oddly, his assists are the highest they have ever been but that is not why he was brought to Boston. Without his inside scoring presence it leaves the C’s sketchy options underneath the basket until Horford reclaims his offensive game. Horford was supposed to be the insurance policy when the C’s are having horrible nights from the floor but he has yet to live up to the expectations he had coming in to this year.
The truth is the Celtics have been one of the best teams in the NBA this season except when they are not. It’s a statement that sounds like the teachings of Confucius or maybe something you would find inside a fortune cookie, simple and direct, hanging heavy with this burden of truth: There are nights where the Celtics look completely lost and shitty. When unable to find a rhythm to their game especially on the offensive side of the ball and with the playoffs looming in the not too far off distance, there are concerns in which team will take the floor when it matters most. There are no second chances in the second season and what ails Boston may cost them dearly in the end.