What’s Wrong With the Celtics?

isaiah thomas

The Celtics have now lost 5 of their last 6 after winning the previous 4 games before that.  At some point, we have to accept that a young team with moving parts and guys who are coming into their own as players will always be a little streaky.  On the other hand, though, the Celtics have lost to the Lakers and Nets during the past 6, and they’ve also dropped multiple games in which they had a lead in the 3rd quarter.  Tonight, after having Friday and Saturday off since their last game Thursday night, they lost to a Mike Conley-less Grizzlies team after leading by 21 points in the 3rd quarter.  You can’t chalk all of that up to being a streaky team.

While there are rays of hope for the Celtics, some of those rays double as causes of concern.  For instance, Avery Bradley missed the past 3+ games before this one with an injury suffered in the embarrassing loss to the Nets at home, and he returned today.  The losses in 3 of the 4 games that Bradley at least partially missed demonstrate his importance to the team, and it isn’t shocking in a vacuum that the Celtics lost today given that Bradley was rusty enough to register a -15, worst of anybody else who played in the game.  The Celtics’ struggles without him suggest that they have a great piece moving forward in Bradley… but the fact that a team built on depth and the “next man up” mentality struggles without a guy at their supposedly deepest position is a problem.

On another “hopeful yet concerning” note, David Lee demonstrated why Brad Stevens benched him a little over a week ago.  Lee shot 2-12, and while it’s understandable that a guy would struggle after being cold on the bench for that time, Lee has no choice but to make the most of whatever limited opportunities that he’s given if he wants to get back in the rotation.  Lee didn’t get to the line at all — though he did grab 5 rebounds — and his 4 points and -12 on the floor shows that Danny Ainge needs to move Lee before the deadline.  You can certainly look at Lee’s play as a sign of optimism for the Celtics moving forward, because their overall collective play should improve if they don’t give 16 minutes to someone like Lee as they did tonight, but that still concerns me simply because of the locker room.  Lee might be the consummate professional about his playing time, but there’s only so much time that a guy can ride the bench before he’s pure dead weight to carry on the team.  This concern is much less problematic than the one with Bradley, though, because the Celtics always have the simple option of a buyout if the situation with Lee is untenable.

Regarding Marcus Smart, I’m still not worried.  First of all, the kid doesn’t turn 22 for 2 months.  Second, he’s come back from injury as an absolute stud in everything except shooting.  Yes, I know that that’s a little like saying a quarterback is amazing at everything except throwing (aka Tim Tebow) given how important shooting is in today’s NBA.  But look at Smart’s stats from today. He had 4 points on 2-9 shooting with 0 FTAs, which is obviously horrible.   But it gets way better: 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 (!) steals, and just 2 turnovers in 24 minutes.   That’s a 36 minute pace of 9 rebounds and 8 steals for a shooting guard.  If Smart gets his shooting to a merely mediocre level for a guard, he’ll still be a force.  If he gets his shooting to just a decent level, he’ll be a hell of a player.  You should definitely be watching his shooting slump closely, but you also shouldn’t start to think that the chance of him being a franchise-altering player is gone.

Something is up with Jae Crowder.  He’s been off recently, and he might be overrating his own role on the team.  With this next point I make, pretend I’m saying it in a Bill Simmons voice.  “What worries me about Crowder is that he thinks he’s the alpha male of the Celtics.  He thinks he’s THE GUY.  He’s not THE GUY.  Now excuse me while I take (well deserved) shots at ESPN and name drop every celebrity I’ve ever met.”

Joking aside, that argument is right about how Crowder is playing right now.  Look at Crowder’s last 6 games.  He’s taken at least 10 shots in each of the past 6 games and at least 13 in 4 of them.  In 4 of the past 6, he’s shot above 50%, and nobody has an issue with that volume of shots if they’re going in.  But in 3 of the games, his shooting percentage was in the 30s, and he shot a whopping 4-14 (29%) against the Lakers.  The Lakers game was particularly awful, as he kept jacking up shots with at least 10 seconds on the clock and killing any flow the Celtics offense had.  Crowder’s struggles may be the opposite of the problem with Bradley and his absence, however, in that the cause for concern is actually a cause for hope.  If the Celtics do get the true number 1 scoring option that we all know they need, Crowder won’t feel as pressured to create offense as much as he does now with a team that only has a single true creator (Isaiah).

All in all, we have to realize that the Celtics are still just a year removed from a team that we all thought was headed for the 11th seed in the East.  It sucks, I know, because we got so used to Danny Ainge’s fastest-of-all-time rebuilding movement, but we can’t expect the C’s to go from good to great as fast as they went from abjectly horrendous to “ya know, the Celtics aren’t that bad.”  They’re still gonna hit some potholes on their path to glory, and sometimes those potholes will feel like craters.  But let’s look at the big picture.  They’re still positioned well to make a quantity for quality trade and bring in a true number 1 guy, and many of their problems will go away when that type of trade happens.  So yeah, I’m as annoyed and frustrated as you are about the C’s right now, but there’s no reason to panic.  Their arrow is still pointing up, even though it doesn’t seem like it at all in the past 2 weeks.

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