No (questionably) funny preambles come to mind, so let’s just dig into this Celtics defeat:
1. The Tatum-sized elephant not in the room.
The ability of the Boston Celtics to weather the storms of players’ varied health setbacks has been a defining characteristic of the Brad Stevens era. But Jayson Tatum is Jayson Tatum, easily the most talented player the team’s ever had in this period. (Aside from maybe Kyrie Irving for 60 glorious games in the 2017-18 honeymoon season, and Tatum will be better than that before long.) And the various successful versions of the Hospital Celtics have almost always included Jayson Tatum.
Is his absence the reason for all of the current problems? Of course not. But they probably win narrowly last night if he’s on the floor. Despite the Cs’ general defensive woes, Tatum’s presence means they can better contain guys like Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons, and shaving a few points off both of those guys’ totals while adding Tatum’s scoring seems like it could’ve resulted in a win.
2. The worst kind of deja vu all over again.
We start with a back-and-forth but generally strong first quarter for the Celtics, follow up with a more evenly matched but still quality Celtics performance over 12 minutes. Then things nosedive in the third, show some comeback potential and even flashes of comeback reality, only to fizzle out in ignominy and listlessness.
I don’t like this movie, folks! It sucks! I would prefer dying by a thousand cuts of questionably earned Joel Embiid free throws, which is a thing I never thought I would type! I admire Jaylen Brown for trying to put the loss on his own shoulders, but while he had some defensive errors, his effort was steady. (Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague, to some extent Daniel Theis…not so much.)
3. The big-man elephant(s?) actually in the room.
The “Celtics need to trade for/sign an elite big man” discourse during the last several season has, for the most part, truly sucked. Boogie Cousins pre-Achilles tear was probably the best sensible option of that kind, and it didn’t happen due to (potentially valid) locker-room concerns, and the current iteration of Boogie seems not to be thriving in Houston. All of the other suggestions—Drummond, Vucevic, Dwight Howard for Christ’s sake—were awful.
And after all that, like a cruel joke personally directed at me…the big-man rotation the Celtics currently have is a significant source of problems. None of them are providing anything close to lockdown interior defense when called upon to do so, despite all having shown significant defensive acumen at various points in their careers. Thompson was signed solely to clash with guys like Embiid who eclipse Daniel Theis’s physical limitations, but couldn’t do it last night. Theis can do well off the bench or as a starter in a small-ish lineup; he can’t do much when he has to share the floor with Thompson. Rob Williams provides bonkers positive net-ratings stats in those “Tatum, Pritchard and the bench” lineups, but his quarantine-necessitated absence and Brad Stevens’ skepticism regarding rookies have kept those minutes to a minimum (not to mention lineup stats can easily be misleading). All of them exhibit problematic effort and execution issues at times, with last night being a clear example of those for all three men.
I don’t know what the answer is, aside from…flipping Theis or Thompson at the deadline for wing help? Maybe? This would, if nothing else, eliminate the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen issue and give the team some bench scoring, but are we sure Timelord is ready to be the only other center? (I think he could be, but Stevens has to play him enough for us to empirically conclude that he has the Clint Capela potential I’ve always suspected. Don’t know if that’ll happen any time soon.)
4. Guard rotation issues.
Some time ago, I said that a Jeff Teague injury would be bad if it meant the point guard rotation was solely Smart and Pritchard. This turned out to be wrong: Teague’s been incredibly spotty as anything other than a backup playmaker, while Pritchard has been remarkable on both ends, and now that he’s hurt, the minutes when Kemba Walker sits are going to be…perilous for a while. They will also be fewer and fewer as Kemba’s minutes limit erodes, but because I’m pretty sure Smart still has to start once Tatum returns, Teague has to run the 1 with the second unit. What else are they gonna do, give it to Carsen Edwards or Tremont Waters? (Some Cs fans will say it’s Waters. That would, admittedly, be preferable to Edwards.)
5. The big picture.
In the short term, losing as a result of low defensive effort, foolish turnovers, a glut of wild shot attempts and juked officiating (which Embiid, by his own admission, tries to solicit) is maddening. Stevens’ intransigence regarding lineup construction is frustrating. The defense is very bad! The vibes are screwy!
In the long term, it’s harder to know what to think. The defense is very bad…over 14 games, with 68 left on the calendar, in a season that’s been a picture of upheaval due to a wildly abbreviated offseason, a bunch of injuries and the looming threat of COVID-19. It’s more likely than not that defense will progress to the mean, from the basement in which it currently dwells. Regaining “average” status won’t be good enough—the team has to be elite on that end to make a deep playoff run. The team’s past under Stevens dictates that they likely will, but there’ll be a fair number of stressful times in the interim.