With their loss to the Dallas Mavericks Saturday night, it’s officially time for the Boston Celtics to panic.
The Boston Celtics lost to the Dallas Mavericks 113-104 Saturday night. It was their 4th loss in their last 5 games, and their 8th in their last 12.
Everyone has a different argument for why the Celtics have struggled thus far. Gordon Hayward is still struggling, and everyone is struggling to fit in around him; the team isn’t tough enough, and can’t lock in with intensity over the course of a full game; guys are looking for their own offense and just standing around when they don’t have the ball; they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but their shooting has just been unlucky.
It’s all true, in varying degrees. It’s led to Gordon Hayward getting moved to the bench in a dramatic move to try to find something that works, a lot of comments about effort and toughness, and a series of ugly losses, including one to the now 6-14 New York Knicks. When asked about Boston’s issues after the game, Brad Stevens responded:
"“We’re not playing with the same personality we played with last year. That’s the easiest way to describe it. And then the 50,000 issues that are below that, we have to tackle one at a time.”"
The tone earlier in the season was one of patience. We had to wait, fans said. Hayward was still working his way back, and it’d just take time for everyone to click.
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Remember that scene in Wedding Crashers on the beach when John tells Claire that he’s young and there’s still a lot he wants to accomplish, and Claire responds, “well…you’re not that young.” The Celtics are John right now. The season is still young, and there’s still plenty of room for hope.
But their season’s not that young. The Celtics are a quarter of the way through their season, and they’re 10-10 with the 6th seed. They still have the 27th ranked offense. Paul Pierce called them the “biggest disappointment” in the NBA thus far this season. While their season is still young, this stretch of disappointing basketball has gone on long enough to be seriously concerning.
Kyrie Irving said after that Knicks loss:
"“We just can’t wait anymore, honestly. From myself, everybody else as a collective, to our coaching staff, we just don’t have time to really be waiting…”"
Let’s dig into this most recent stretch where the Boston Celtics have gone 4-8. The offense has scored 105.9 points per 100 possessions, up from 102.6 in the first 8 games. You can see, especially in the last couple of games, a bit more commitment to playing a team-oriented brand of basketball and a bit more attacking with purpose. But they were still only 22nd in the league in offense in this most recent stretch, so they still have a long way to go.
Meanwhile, the defense has gone from allowing 98.2 points per 100 possessions in the first 8 games, to allowing 105.8 in the last 12. The defense has been 8th best in the league in this stretch, which is still very good. But in the beginning of the year, they could at least hang their hat on their massive defensive superiority when their offense was sputtering.
They can’t say that right now.
"“Disconnected, not on the same page, no presence, just not doing what you’re supposed to do… it wasn’t a good display defensively,” said Jaylen Brown about Boston’s defense against Dallas on Saturday night."
Boston did well in spurts, but didn’t put together a consistent effort. The Mavericks made them look silly at times.
As good as Boston’s defense has been, several guys have put up big nights against them. Saturday night, it was J.J. Barea of all people torching them in the fourth. Maybe the strategy was to make the 34-year-old 6’0 journeyman beat you.
There isn’t serious analytical insight to be gained from Barea’s great night (and it was great – he was 9-16 and created a lot of his own offense. This dude has made such a nice little career for himself as a Mavericks cult hero.) But it’s a weird look for a supposedly elite offense, and one consistent with the rest of the season. Guys keep having big scoring nights against the Celtics. Maybe that’s not even a problem. But it’s weird.
It’s hard to even point to one individual thing from this Mavericks game that sunk the Celtics. They looked toothless to stop stinkin’ J.J. Barea; Luka Doncic made them look silly at times with his passes; they couldn’t buy a bucket for several stretches; their defensive effort was very sporadic.
What do you point to for improvement?
Brad Stevens might as well just go into the huddle saying, “well, you’re bad at a lot of things now, just be better at basketball in general.”
Here’s maybe the weirdest thing about Boston’s 4-8 stretch. They’ve put up 118.3 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters, good for 3rd in the league. Maybe that’s not that telling – the Washington Wizards are 2nd in the league, and a fat lot of good that’s done them. But it backs up something we’ve seen in the eye test.
Let’s zoom in on the Mavericks game. Boston only scored 22 in the fourth, but their offense looked legitimately good – they were making crisp passes, driving with purpose, and (this is probably the biggest thing that was different from the first three quarters) moving around off the ball. It’s like they need the fourth quarter to come around in order to play with a consistent sense of urgency.
The Boston Celtics are capable of being great. They have the coach, the talent, the on-paper foundation of greatness, and the flashes of it to tantalize you. It’s not a mirage – they should be great.
But right now, they’re mediocre at best. You can say it holds minimal or even no predictive value, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re a quarter of the way through the season and this team looks broken.
We expected a learning curve.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.