Boston Celtics struggling to let loose all their potential

Boston Celtics Marcus Smart (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Boston Celtics Marcus Smart (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Halfway through the 2018-19 season and the Boston Celtics are not playing up to expectations. But the reason why isn’t just one thing.

Last week, the Boston Celtics appeared to be righting the ship in 2018-19. They’d won four in a row and were getting solid play across the board.

Heading into the third week in January, the Celtics are once again looking like a team with undefined roles, players who can’t buy a bucket, and internal conflict. Throw in a lack of urgency and some questionable energy and this team is ripe for a late-season letdown.

It’s not time to fling oneself overboard – if you haven’t already – but it is time to question if this team is ready to make noise in the Eastern Conference.

There were plenty of reasons to believe the Celtics were getting ready for a long winning streak. Gordon Hayward was knocking down jump shots, Jaylen Brown was shining off the bench, and players were playing as a cohesive unit.

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Not only that but Boston was sharing the ball and putting together solid games from start to finish. In their four game winning streak, the Celtics had 30 or more assists each night. Bench play was a plus as scoring came from multiple players.

Two losses later and they may very well be back to the drawing board. The team combined for only 39 assists in these games and the bench put up only 23 and 25 points in losses to the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic.

Halfway through the season, with a record of 25-17, the Celtics are still a playoff team but hover between the fourth and sixth spots. Still good, but far off from where expectations put them prior to the season.

Defined player roles, scuffles and bad losses

Terry Rozier was a player who was on the rise heading into the season. A playoff hero in the spring of 2018, Rozier seemed on a path to be a major contributor this season.

Instead, Rozier’s scoring is down nearly three points per game. He’s also shooting 34.9 percent from three-point range, down from 38.1 last season.

Some of this was expected, especially with Kyrie Irving and Hayward coming back from injuries. Rozier. He does seem to play better when he’s a starter and perhaps it’s as simple as harnessing that same energy and focus he does as a starter for when he’s coming off the bench.

Figuring out roles was also present at the end of the loss to Orlando, in which Jayson Tatum fired up the final shot. There was visible frustration from Irving after the game, which is understandable. A star player wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line, especially a scorer like Irving.

Except Tatum is one of the Celtics who I don’t mind taking the final shot. Irving is certainly one of them, along with Al Horford and Hayward. Even Brown and Marcus Morris have hit big shots during their time in the league.

Of course, a game against the Orlando Magic should have never come down to the final shot. This was the second loss against Orlando this season. Seven of Boston’s 17 losses have come against teams currently under .500.

This causes more concern. A team should be taking care of business against teams lower on the ladder than them. The Boston Celtics, if they’d won five of these games in which they’d lost to under .500 teams, would be sitting at 30-12. They’d be tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for the second-best record and we might not be even discussing this.

No easy solutions

Two areas of perceived weakness for the Boston Celtics are three-point shooting and defense. On paper, however, they are near the top of the NBA. They are sixth in three-point shooting percentage and, at 105.6 points allowed per game, are tied for fifth-best overall.

Settling into and accepting roles will help, something that will hopefully be figured out soon. Rozier can be that key scorer off the bench again, a role which Brown has assumed (mostly) over the past few weeks.

Would a team ever considering benching a superstar like Irving? This would be not for level of play reasons, but instead to bring instant scoring off the bench. He could bring more consistency to the bench.

Besides, it’s not who starts the game, it’s who’s on the court at the end of the game, especially in key moments. Why not give it a shot for a couple of games?

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Whatever the case, I hope the Celtics get on the same page soon or it will be a quick playoff exit come this spring.