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The Boston Celtics want everything to come easy. They too often splinter at early signs of adversity. And until this team is willing to put in the effort to change its uneven ways, it is condemned to watch the same script play out over and over again.
The Celtics do not lack for talent. It’s the primary reason why their roller coaster ways are so infuriating. But this team hasn't gotten enough from every level of the organization — from the coach to the general manager to the All-Stars to the supporting cast — and that’s why two thirds of the way through a hellish 2020-21 season, the Celtics sit two games below .500 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics too often settle for 3-point shots and hang their heads when they don’t fall. Whenever they finally attack the basket, they too often lament the lack of whistles that are never going to come until they more consistently buy into driving at the rim. The defensive effort that has been the calling card of Brad Stevens’ teams throughout his Boston tenure has gone missing in a season where the team’s defensive effort frequently wanes.
For the second time this week, the Celtics let go of the rope in the middle quarters and allowed an inferior Western Conference opponent to build a monster lead. For the second time in three days, Boston mounted a furious comeback only to run out of gas at the finish line.
Stevens and his players are acutely aware of their shortcomings. You could sense the frustration in their voices after Wednesday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. And yet we can’t say with any certainty if the frustration will be enough for Boston to change its ways.
"I think, as a coach, you should always not put a ceiling on your team and you should always have faith. That said, it's not time to dream about the future, it's time to do it now,” said a ruffled Brad Stevens.
"We need to play better. We need to show up and compete every night with great urgency all the way through the game, regardless of what just happened. And so I don't really care about the future and I don't really care about the first 48 games.
"What are we going to do? And that's the question. It's time to show up. It's time to play the way we did in the third and fourth quarter, or the late third and early fourth and let the chips fall where they may up to then.”
Stevens said it’s fair for many of Boston’s shortcomings to fall on him. He is far from the only one with a slice of this blame pie.
Undoubtedly, there are extenuating circumstances. The Celtics could not plan to be the NBA team most ravaged by COVID this season. Stevens could not anticipate losing his only experienced center due to non-COVID illness just a short time before tip-off against the Mavericks.
And yet, every team in the NBA is dealing with something and the best teams routinely find a way to gut through it all.
That used to be a trademark of the Celtics. Whenever they lost a player like Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward to injury, they found a way to maintain a high level of play. Others took on more responsibility and kept the ship afloat.
Celtics' win percentage in close games last season (12th in NBA)
Celtics' win percentage in close games this season (27th in NBA)
This team doesn’t have that characteristic. In fact, it doesn’t have many defining features at all. The only identity this team has is one that hasn’t played to a level commensurate to its talent.
You can surely wonder if Danny Ainge did enough to stock beyond the top six players on this team. Tristan Thompson’s extended absence has only accentuated his inability to consistently impact winning. The Jeff Teague signing was a miss. We’re left wondering what this team even looks like at full strength, especially after its trade deadline maneuverings.
But a team with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Evan Fournier is plenty talented enough to beat the play-in contenders of the West.
Tatum and Brown deserve their All-Star titles but they have not played to the level of other young stars like Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic this week. Surely, Tatum and Brown have accomplished far more on the postseason stage than either of those two, and yet Boston’s burden of expectation falls heavier on them this year and they’ve struggled to shoulder it without the safety net of a veteran presence.
That’s part of the maturation process in the NBA and the road to becoming a true superstar. Fournier is still getting settled after being acquired at the deadline and Smart hasn’t played to his standards on either end of the court. Walker is still up and down while dealing with the limitations of his knee rehab. And it shows how much this team is already leaning on third-year big man Robert Williams when the center play lagged so heavily without him Wednesday night.
The question is, where do the Celtics go from here? They’ve hit yet another batch of adversity this week. Time is running short to fix what ails them.
Are the Celtics content to fizzle and turn their attention to the future? Or are they willing to dig in and change the trajectory of this season?
“When adversity hits, we nose dive,” said Stevens. "And so we've got to be better in that situation. So it's not, to me, as much about the start, the end, it's about how are we going to play when it gets tough? Because it's always going to get tough. The players are too good.
"Those shots that Luka hit were ridiculous. There's nothing else we can say about those, right? So we have to move on. We have to be able to do that better than we have. And I do believe that we can. But I'm not gonna sit up here and talk about what we can do and what we hope to do and all that crap.
"I've been around good teams, and I've been around bad teams and we're very average right now. Because we don't do it every day. And so we'll see how good we can get if we start to do it every night.”
There used to be a message etched on the wall above the Celtics’ weight room at their old practice facility in Waltham. It read, “What hurts more, the pain of hard work, or the pain of regret?”
That’s what the Celtics have to ask themselves now. Are they willing to put in the effort to change their average ways? Or are they content to look back and wonder what might have been?