5 rational thoughts (sort of) about the Celtics’ collapse in Dixieland

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans

Losses like what happened to the Celtics against the Pelicans yesterday get fans riled way the hell up. Understandably so, though it not infrequently goes too far; large swaths of Celtics Twitter were talking about how toxic things got late yesterday afternoon.

I could easily make this an all-complaint list, and it’ll definitely be more complaints than praise, but I feel like full-on doomerism is stupid. (Y’all know that teams like the Sacramento Kings exist, right? And the Minnesota Timberwolves? Celtics haven’t even seen pure sports hell like that since M.L. Carr, Rick Pitino and Jim O’Brien were coaching.

1. Mad (at) Brad

Might as well start with coaching. The Fire Brad Caucus (FBC) of Weird Celtics Twitter was out in full force yesterday. Those of you in that scene may know figures to whom this reference might allude; others don’t, and likely don’t care, so calling out display names is pointless/counterproductive. Some FBC members have been screaming for his ouster since 2019. It’s just a vague undercurrent to the pulse of the fanbase.

After yesterday’s collapse, I feel like many more people will be inclined to join the FBC. This game fell apart for many reasons, and Stevens’ whiplash-inducing vacillation between rigidity in lineup deployment and inexplicable experimentation is one of them. I also do think Stevens is much better at exceeding low expectations than meeting high ones (at least to an extent), and that he may be somewhat out of his depth. He definitely could’ve used timeouts more strategically than he did, or realized how hard Jaylen Brown was working to get other people involved and reframed his strategy in that light. (Brown could’ve also said “hell with it” and taken the shots himself if he was convinced he’d make them, but that’s another matter.) Brad also seems to be unsure when to put the hammer down and when to let his players figure it out. He’s empirically proven that he’s a skilled coach, but at this point it’s no longer unreasonable to speculate as to whether he’s the right coach for this team right now. (But maybe try not to be a dick about it to people.)

2. Speed of the descent

This game started going off the rails in mid-to-late Q3, and things went bad fast.

Speaking in broad strokes, the best possible interpretation is that the Cs’ strategy for keeping Zion Williamson contained began to crumble. Once he’d realized what he had to do to avoid their traps, it opened up the Pelicans offense to a remarkable degree. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball were both shooting reasonably well beforehand and Zion’s freedom emboldened them further. The Celtics also seemed to forget Josh Hart was a player who existed and let him, usually a low scorer, rack up 17. The Pelicans are an on-the-rise team with greater talent than their record indicates…but that’s really no excuse for the Cs letting them off the hook in the final stretches.

3. Incipient interpersonal controversies?

As pointed out in today’s Dump, Jaylen does not call people out by name in public when he’s pissed. Our site’s head honcho Chuck posits that he’s referring to either his fellow stars (Tatum and Walker), his coach or all three, and I don’t disagree. I also don’t necessarily think Brown is wrong, he’s just obviously not blameless himself, because nobody is.

About a week ago I loudly proclaimed that this Celtics team was not the 2018-19 bust-season drama-fest…but it’s become clear such an outcome is more possible than I initially thought. No one hates anybody, certainly not in any visible fashion (as I noted last week, you could see the contempt Brown had for Kyrie, and Mook Morris ran his mouth whether in front of reporters or not), but the possibility is there. And tying back to Brad’s leadership role as a coach, I don’t know if he’s capable of getting everyone emotionally on the same page if real fracturing begins.

4. The season’s structure encourages these issues

I feel like in some ways we’ve breezed over how different the most recent offseason was from previous offseasons. It was barely three months for most teams. Free agency was there and gone in a flash. Training camp? Guys like Tristan Thompson couldn’t even play in the two-week session due to injury but started the first game of the season. More games were crammed into weeks than usual and teams had less time to run plain old practices. Then the surge of COVID-19 positive tests and postponements threw things into even more upheaval.

This doesn’t on its face excuse the second-half collapses in terms of defensive execution, or any interpersonal issues, or the flaws in Brad’s decision-making. But it certainly creates an environment in which problems that would be fixed (or at least on the road to repair) in a normal season make everything that much more unstable.

5. Rob Williams needs to start

Let’s end this on a positive note:


Williams ended the game with 8 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocks in about 21 minutes. He only had 1 turnover and 3 fouls, and would’ve had more blocks if not for one complete-BS goaltending call.

Tristan Thompson has actually looked pretty good of late. But he doesn’t seem to mind coming off of the bench and can still be productive when he does. With this many things in upheaval, what’s the harm in trying something bold, especially when you’re continually amassing empirical evidence to suggest it could be really effective?

[Side note: Shout out to the creators of psychedelic/funky Celtics fan art that I weave into my recaps and follow-ups—that’s @smarfwater above, but I also gotta tip the cap to @beardjam, @manbearpiggins, @LuckysPipe and many others. My bad if I forgot you.]
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