After the Boston Celtics’ latest loss — a 113-104 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks — Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart summed up the team’s issues with one oxymoron.
“When guys aren’t scared of you no more, there’s nothing you can do about that,” Smart told reporters. “We’ve got to change it. We’ve got to come out and be the first ones to hit guys in the mouth. You’ve got to get that swagger back.”
“There’s nothing more you can do” and “we’ve got to change it” in back-to-back sentences is actually a perfect description of Boston’s dilemma. The current struggles simultaneously feel unfixable and also on the verge falling away with a couple of good performances in a row.
The Celtics have lost the edge that defined them last season — that ineffable ability to remain competitive in every game, no matter the situation. The opponent just went up by 20? No problem, the Celtics would come roaring back. Gordon Hayward went down for the season? No problem, the Celtics won 16 straight. Kyrie Irving is done for the season? No problem, the Celtics still nearly made the Finals. Boston had talent last year, clearly, but the refusal to be intimidated by whatever challenge stood in front of them was what set the Celtics apart.
This year, the polar opposite seems to be true. When an opponent goes up by five or 10, the Celtics fold and spend entire quarters trying to dig out of ruts they created for themselves. Gain a star back into the lineup? That’s just more touches that need to be spread among players struggling to figure out the right number of touches for everyone involved. Instead of attacking ferociously, the Celtics are taking turns going against inefficient isolation mismatches.
Perhaps weirdest of all is that the Celtics know exactly what the issues are.
“Words can’t even explain it,” Smart said. “It feels like deja vu all over again. We keep saying and doing the same things after every game, and it’s getting real annoying. I mean, I don’t even know what to say to you guys at this point.”
At times, the problems seem numerous and unfixable, even though they are relatively simple. The Celtics have good shooters who are missing shots. But how do you get good shooters who are shooting poorly to start shooting well again? The Celtics need a wake-up call. But how do you get players to stop hitting the snooze button (especially after they have already had 10 wake-up calls)?
To be fair, there are trends that aren’t likely to carry through the season (we assume). Gordon Hayward started badly, and he keeps getting better and better. Tatum has scaled back the iso mid-range jumpers, and he’s had an upswing in production over the last few games. Brown, who has struggled mightily on the offensive end, stopped hoisting threes on Saturday and finished with 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting. Kyrie Irving has gone through a three-game dip as he tries to shoot Boston out of its woes.
Team-wide, the statistics feel similarly like an outlier. The Celtics were eighth in 3-point frequency in the league last year (33 percent of their shots were from deep) and had the second-highest percentage (38 percent). This year, the Celtics are firing up even more from downtown (38 percent of all attempts) and making just an abysmal 34.8 percent (22nd in the league). With the caveat that the problems do go beyond missing open shots, these struggles might prove unsustainable, and seeing a few shots fall could cause a ripple effect.
But as Irving put it after Saturday’s loss: “There’s really no time to wait at this point.”
Theoretically, the Celtics could still harness all of their star power into the type of juggernaut they were expected to be. That possibility will almost certainly prevent Danny Ainge from blowing up the roster in the short-term (after all, even if a change was a good idea, the trade value of his young assets is certainly at a low point).
But we can probably stop couching every conversation with “It’s too early to worry.” The season is now 20 games old, and worrying is appropriate. The Celtics have demonstrated a myriad of disturbing trends, and they have probably cost themselves a shot at the No. 1 seed and the home-court advantage which nearly vaulted them into the Finals last year.
Now, perhaps the Celtics’ best hope is to recapture the underdog mentality last year’s squad embraced. The “Nobody believed in us” spirit made more sense when — you know — nobody believed in the Celtics because Irving and Hayward were out. But at this point, nobody believes in this year’s Celtics either.
“Once we figure that (swagger) out, things will start changing,” Smart said. “But until then, we’re going to continue to get our ass whupped.”