There are times when the Celtics bandwagon is rolling along merrily toward conference finals and — as the club hopes/expects — NBA championship series destinations.
Then there are the consecutive December 16, 18 and 21 home losses to Orlando, Orlando and Indiana. And the splat to worst-in-the-West Houston.
And Tuesday’s 130-111 stumble to Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma-less Washington. With a real opportunity to tighten the race for the No. 1 seed in the East at stake, the loss diminishes the showdown factor of Thursday’s marquee matchup in Milwaukee.
So what to make of it all?
Said one general manager, “I wouldn’t worry about Boston — unless you have to go against them in the playoffs. Then you should worry your a** off.”
“Look, they’re still one of the two or three best teams in the league — maybe the best if you just go by player-for-player talent,” an Eastern Conference executive told Heavy Sports. “No one has their depth. But sometimes they don’t play up to their own standard.”
‘They’ve Had Some Bad Losses’
Said another club’s ranking official, “I know they’ve had some bad losses, but everyone does. It’s a long season, and sometimes games just catch you. But usually you bounce back right away. That’s why what happened to them against Orlando was so strange. It wasn’t surprising that they lost to them once; that stuff happens. But when they lost to them two days later? That said something.
“It just shows that they don’t have it down yet — not like they need to. Last night (in Washington) should have been one of those gritty wins where you fight off a letdown against a shorthanded team. But it wasn’t there when they tried to pull themselves out of the rut.
“I read where Paul Pierce said they always get up for the big ones, but it can be dangerous to just assume that’s always going to be there for you.”
And after squandering a green-and-golden opportunity in The Finals against Golden State, the 2022-23 Celtics are in an all-or-nothing situation.
“Other teams have some different things working because of where they are and how they’re just trying to get better. With Boston, it’s pretty much either you win it all or it’s a failure,” one general manager told Heavy. “There’s no consolation prize for that team. They should have won it last year, but they screwed it up. But you can say, ‘Oh, it was their first time in the Finals, and they were going against an experienced champion.’ This year, it’s all or nothing for Boston.”
Celtics’ Pace a Determining Factor
While coach Joe Mazzulla likes to lean on statistical markers to explain success or failure on a given night, it would seem offensive pace and defensive pressure are the key indicators. The Celtics seem to be their best when playing fast with the ball and getting up into opponents on the other end of the floor.
“I’ve seen them a lot, and the first thing I look for is pace,” said one scout. “If they’re pushing the ball and playing fast, they get great shots. You can’t stop them from getting great shots. But if some of those shots aren’t falling, they have to raise their defensive intensity — and sometimes they don’t.”
Another scout lauded coach Joe Mazzulla‘s emphasis on pushing the pace.
“But it comes down to the players and their commitment to it,” he said. “Brad (Stevens) was big on that, but it’s hard getting guys to do it as a habit. There’s a difference between talking about it and emphasizing it in practice. Jaylen Brown doesn’t usually have too many issues with pace, but some other guys do. (Jayson) Tatum’s gotten better at it, and he’s so much better when he’s running and getting easy baskets, but it can be a struggle at times.
“So you’ve got to create habits and you’ve got to practice it — which is hard, because how much do you really practice anymore? But you can’t just be talking about it. You can’t just be yelling it on the bench: ‘We’ve got to play faster. We’ve got to push the tempo.’ That doesn’t do any good. You’ve got to work to make something a habit. Like, Steph (Curry) and Klay Thompson didn’t learn how to move without the basketball when Steve Kerr became their coach. Those guys had been doing it since high school and college and (former Warriors coach) Mark Jackson. They’ve ALWAYS moved without the ball. It’s habit. That’s how they have to play to get shots and to score.
“Some guys are more disposed to playing that way; other guys have to practice it more to get it, to get accustomed to running.”
Whether the Celtics can buy even further into this gospel that Tommy Heinsohn regularly preached may well determine how long their season runs.