1. Expectations are a Funny Thing
Fans had sky-high expectations for this team based on last year’s success, expected health, and (subconsciously) the wildly successful recent seasons of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots. Let’s not pretend that the somewhat unrealistic expectations of dominance have nothing to do with Boston’s other title winners. In October, instead of seeking home court and acknowledging the Raptors, potential of the Bucks, and depth/chemistry of the Pacers.
Most fans underestimated all three teams. The Sixers, meanwhile, are a work in progress with two new, highly capable additions and newly arrived bench depth, but most of their success will depend on Joel Embiid’s health and match-ups.
Consider the Milwaukee Bucks. The over-under for these Bucks was around 49 or 50 wins. And they’re currently projected to win 63. Most Bucks fans will be happy with a playoff series win, though some are dreaming of an NBA Finals match-up with the Warriors. Which fans will be happier when the season ends? The ones with lower expectations.
2. Leadership Style and Future Uncertainty
Its clear that Stevens’ laid-back demeanor has worked well when expectations were low or even moderate. It’s the right approach for the modern NBA. But every team needs a jolt here and there during the grind of an 82-game season.
Now that expectations have been raised, and Kyrie’s future with Boston is a real question, uncertainty abounds. The psychological toll of trade rumors on young players (Tatum and Brown) is real. The Anthony Davis cumulonimbus cloud hovering over this season has mostly impacted the Pelicans and Lakers, but has had repercussions in Boston, too. Yes, its part of the profession to “put that out of your mind,” but let’s be honest about the impact. In addition, considering how far they advanced last year, dealing with now being expendable, would likely impact the focus of anyone under-25.
The quiet leadership of Al Horford worked well in the absence of Kyrie and massive expectations. But remember that those Celtics could have lost to the Bucks in 6 in the first round and the expectations would have been more reasonable.
If your most talented offensive player might leave, your team’s future is in doubt. It’s that simple.
3. Defensive cohesion and Aron Baynes. The numbers are staggering. Baynes’ injuries have forced Horford to play more center and forced Theis and even Ojeleye to pick up minutes at 4/5. Baynes’ impact at the rim, in communicating, and in clogging things up with his wide body and nimble footwork is huge. Via Sean Grande, Boston’s radio play-by-play voice:
4. Three-Point Shooting and Extra Pressure
Boston’s bench relies too much on inconsistent shooters this year. Rozier (35%) Hayward (33%) and Brown (32%) combine to take 11.6 threes per game.
Moving Marcus Morris into the starting unit helped the starters, but put more pressure on those three. Rozier’s success last year and impending free agency has warped his season, when he’s come off the bench this year. The fact that he can’t produce identical play off the bench speaks to that pressure and his ability to create is enhanced by Horford’s passing and picks (everything is). Rozier has started 10 games in Kyrie’s absence and looks like a different player when he does. He has to stop putting extra pressure on himself to compensate for his lack of minutes, to help the team and his own case in free-agency.
It’s been well-documented that Hayward’s return hasn’t been a linear progression. A few great games against Minnesota didn’t carry over earlier in the season. Still, he has moments when he’s feeling it, like his performance in the win over Philly. His passing has improved the bench and helped Jaylen attack the basket. There is still optimism that Hayward’s ceiling this year will come in April and May, but we’re getting close and uncertainty remains. Another question: Can Jaylen create and finish or get to the line against the best defenses?
We can take positives from the Milwaukee game. That was playoff-level intensity, with one-week-off sloppiness on both sides.
The Celtics then fell apart against a better-than-their-record Chicago Bulls team who should compete for an 8th seed next year with the front-court trio of Markannen-Carter-Porter and the scoring of LaVine.
The first quarter last night felt like another playoff preview. And then the Raptors hit Boston with an 18–0 run that may as well have included a “Game Over” sign, considering the way the team responded. To be honest, 18–0 usually means game over at any time. Keeping those runs to 9 or 10 points is what separates good teams from great ones, and it comes with getting a stop when you need one.
The 2nd Quarter against the Gasol-Siakam-Norman Powell Raptors was as ugly as the 3rd Quarter of the Bulls game. The defense wilts and the energy just drains from the team.
What kind of energy will they bring over the last 20 games? Its anybody’s guess, but I’m waiting until the dust settles on this whirlwind to render a verdict.
Wed, 2/27 vs Portland Trail Blazers (ESPN)
Fri, 3/1 vs Washington Wizards
Sun, 3/3 vs Houston Rockets (ABC)
Tue, 3/5 @ Golden State Warriors (TNT)
Wed, 3/6 @ Sacramento Kings (I’ll be there with Mr. Black)
This is a brutal stretch for the Celtics, but the season is far from over. Keep your head up, Celtics fans!