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The Time Has Come For The Celtics To Wake The Hell Up And Get Their Shit Together

Carmen Mandato. Getty Images.

Over the course of an NBA season, embarrassing losses are going to happen to everyone. Take the Rockets for example. We've seen them beat the Sixers, Bucks, Suns, etc. That is true.

But here's the thing with that. The Sixers win came on December 5th (with Embiid/Harden playing). The Bucks win came on December 11th (fully healthy). While annoying, there's no real problem losing a game to a bad team in December, when you've only played around 25ish games.

There is a drastic difference when you look at what the Celtics did last night. Last time I checked, it's March 14th. We are now at the point of the season where you cannot have these types of losses. Nobody is saying the Celtics have to be perfect and win every game they play the rest of the way this season. That is an unrealistic expectation that just isn't real.

But I do think it's OK to expect this Celts group to beat a team that had 15 fucking wins on the year. Like, what are we doing? The frustrating part about last night is this idea that this happens all the time to the Celts, and that's not even really true. After last night, the Celt are now 28-8 against teams under .500. That's essentially the same as MIL (28-9) and the 8 losses are tied with CLE for the fewest in the entire NBA. This is a problem that they've mostly fixed this season, along with their clutch record (22-11).

Now, with 13 games to go and in a tight seeding race, losses like this are different than if this game happened before Christmas. When you looked at this 6 game road trip I imagine we all did the same thing. We saw the game at HOU and counted it as a win. That's fine to do because we are fans. We do not control what happens. The issue is when the players do the same thing, and after watching 2 minutes of this game, it was clear everyone not named Jaylen Brown did not take this game seriously.

When you fuck around, you tend to not like what you find out.

What we're seeing is a version of the Celts that are at risk of undoing all the good they managed to accomplish in the first 59 games (42-17) of the season. They're just 5-5 since, and not only has that created a 2.5 game hole (could be 3 by tonight) from the 1 seed, but it also has allowed the Sixers to close the gap as well. The Celts own a 1.0 lead (really 2.0 due to tiebreaker) over PHI, but also now have the same 22 losses. Meanwhile, I'll remind you that the Bucks have won 8 of 10 and the Sixers are riding a 5 game winning streak. That's what makes losing to a now 16 win Houston Rockets team unacceptable at this point of the season. 

And I'm sorry, but the players have no one but themselves to blame for this situation. Sure Joe has areas he needs to improve, but nothing is going to get better until the players commit to stop playing losing basketball. This comes from their best player to their starting point guard to their reserves. When you play mediocre/losing basketball, you get mediocre/losing results, it's honestly not that complicated.

Now? The rest of the trip (MIN/POR/UTA/SAC) is about as close to must win as you can get. That's the problem with dropping one of the gettable games of the trip. Your margin for error is now gone, all because you fucked around and couldn't beat a 15 win team. Grow the hell up.

With that said, let's dive in.

The Good

- As I said, the only player in his game who looked like he actually gave a shit was Jaylen Brown. It sure is frustrating watching this team waste these performances, but if there was anyone on the roster who not only took this game seriously but came ready to play a full 48, it was Jaylen

Jaylen played like he knew the importance of a game like this. He knew how important it was to be focused and play with the right amount of energy and effort. At no point did I get the sense that Jaylen thought he could just step on the floor and the Rockets would bow down to his greatness and just be honored to share the floor with him. He attacked, he was aggressive, he defended.

To finish with 43/5/2 on 16-25 (4-10) with only 2 TOs goes a long way of explaining why Jaylen was the only starter with a positive +/- (+3), and when it came time for someone to try and snap this team out of their funk in the fourth quarter, it was Jaylen who responded wth 17 huge points on 5-8 shooting. Sure that missed FT at the end was pretty brutal, but the Celts lose by 20 in this game if not for what Jaylen did so not one part of me is mad at him or as an issue with his game. He gave this team enough to win. Period.

As you can expect, he owned it after the game. The one thing I never really question when it comes to Jaylen is his leadership. Not only thing he said postgame was incorrect

- Outside of Jaylen, really the only other player we saw play with a pulse would be Malcolm Brogdon

When it comes to filling your role, this was another example of Brogdon doing just that. His 20 points off the bench were fairly massive, he was efficient at 5-11 (3-5), he made all 7 of his FTA, and he only had 1 TO in 28 minutes. Not only that, he was right there with Jaylen in the fourth quarter when it came time to making big time buckets in big time moments. There's a reason those two played every second of the 4th quarter, and together they had 22 of the 29 points the Celts scored. For perspective, all starters not named Jaylen had a combined 3 points in that frame.

If we're being honest, I almost wish Brogdon was even more selfish offensively in his minutes. Given how everyone not named Jaylen was shooting the ball, I don't think anyone would have had a problem with Brogdon taking more than 11 FGA. That may have been 3rd highest on the team, but it could have been even higher for my liking.

- That's it. We're moving on.

The Bad

- If you're looking to understand why the Celts are in this rut, it's important to know where to look. Many people will just point to the three point volume. To me, that's misguided. The Celts making and missing threes has happened all year, but yet they were still able to be successful, why is that? Because they mastered the details. 

I want to focus on something Joe said after the game

If you watch this team and you get a sense that they look "different" this is where you need to start. Let's take a look at each one of these areas Joe mentioned in this clip. The Four Factors if you will.

When it comes to FTs, the Celtics spent the first 59 games (42-17) as the #1 team in the NBA when it comes to opponent FTA rate. Basically, they almost never sent guys to the line and it was a huge reason why they had a top 5 defense. 

These last 10 games? They're 25th in the NBA in opponents' FTA rate. That's bad. We're seeing a Celtics defense that is having a ton of trouble defending without fouling, which is gifting way too many easy points. The Celts are 29th in opponents FTA (26.3) since the All Star Break. Pre-Break? They were #1 at 20.7.

OK, now let's talk rebounding.

Pre-break, the Celts were the #1 team in opponent OREB%. Over their last 10 games, that has dropped to 19th, including being 30th in the NBA in 4th quarter opponent OREB%. So, basically, not only have they regressed when it comes to finishing defensive possessions, but in the 4th quarter when it matters most they are literally the worst team in the NBA at keeping teams off the glass. That's losing basketball. 

Why does that matter?

2nd chance points. Pre-Break, the Celts were 6th in the NBA in limiting opponents' 2nd chance points. Over the last 10 games? They rank 17th. 

And finally, the turnovers. We all know about this one. Let me know if you see a common theme in the 5 post-break losses

- So just add it up. We're seeing the Celts go from the best to the worst in the league when it comes to defending without fouling and keeping guys off the glass. They've gone from top 6 in 2nd chance points to middle of the pack, which makes sense since they cannot stop guys from getting OREB putbacks. These are also things that the Celtics control, which is why this is frustrating. Rebounding, defending, that's all effort. Taking care of the ball, that's playing smart. 

- Just in this game alone we saw HOU finish with 15 OREB and 17 2nd chance points. Combine that with 22 points off turnovers and that's 29 of their 111 points all coming from self inflicted wounds or as I like to call it, losing basketball.

If you want to know why the Celts are in this hole, start with those problem areas.

- It's not often we see Sam Hauser go 2-8 (1-6), especially when the majority of not all of those were catch & shoot looks. One of those nights, sure, but a bad time to have one.

- He ultimately gets a pass, but it was pretty clear this was a coast game for Al Horford. He wasn't really jumping to challenge anything, he only took 3 FGA in his 30 minutes, and the rebounding, well that was basically nonexistent for much of the night. Again, he's a billion years old and this plan has worked in terms of keeping him fresh, but let's just call it what it was. Al coasted in this game and given how important he is to their success, taking just 3 FGA including 0 in 15 second half minutes just isn't going to cut it.

Al can coast in a game and still give a little more.

- The Houston Rockets have the 28th ranked offense in the NBA this season. Even if there are issues defensively, that's an offense you should be able to stop. They don't really move the ball, everything is mostly bad iso basketball, I mean they are 16-52 for a reason. So someone is going to have to explain to me on what planet is it acceptable to give up back to back 31 point quarters to open this game on 48.8% shooting. 

Jalen Green got whatever he wanted. Nobody decided to close out hard on Jabari Smith, so all he did was go 5-5 from deep in the first half. Nobody wanted to box out Kenyon Martin JR who had 3 OREB and 11 points on 4-8 in the first half. The Rockets finished with a 114 Ortg in this game which is considerably higher than their season average of 109.8. At no point did it seem like the Celts made them uncomfortable offensively, and then when it did, they ended up fouling anyway which led to another 27 FTA.

To me, I'm looking at everyone. The perimeter defense by Smart/Tatum/White was dogshit. We continue to see what happens when you are unable to provide resistance along the perimeter and none of it is good. Guys are not guarding their yard and as a result the collective team defense is regressing. The Celts may have a top 5 defense on the year, but it's only been 17th since the break. They are simply not guarding anywhere close to an acceptable level right now.

- After Tatum made that three to end the 3rd to bring the score within 5, both he and Smart came out of the game to start the 4th. Unfortunately, the Brogdon/White/Hauser/Jaylen/Kornet lineup had a pretty tough first 5 minutes of that quarter

That group couldn't get a stop to save their lives. The back to back Garuba 3PM before Joe called a timeout to bring Smart/Tatum back in were brutal, but kind of how the night went. I know everyone has immediately turned this into a Smart can't play in the 4th thing, but the non Tatum/Smart minutes in the 4th last night did this team no favors. They closed 18-13 and it didn't matter because that first unit couldn't win their minutes. 

The Ugly

- If I've said it once I've said it a million times. Marcus Smart may not be the best player on this team, but he is without a doubt one of the most important. How he plays pretty much always dictates how the team will end up playing. It's why guard play is so important to this roster.

Quite frankly, Smart hasn't even been bad. I'll take bad. You can win with bad. What you cannot do is win with whatever version of basketball Marcus Smart is currently playing. Even if he's coming back from injury, my issues lately aren't really physical with him, they are mental. He's playing losing basketball in almost every sense right now.

Take this play

Did you happen to catch the end there? Smart misses a corner three, fine, that's whatever. But what happens next is the inexcusable part. He stands there, asking for a foul. Meanwhile, the ball is going the other way and guess what happens?

His man, the man that contested the 3PA, beats him down the floor and finishes. Timeout Joe. I'm sorry, but what the fuck is this? When we talk about energy and effort and doing the little things to win, this is it. There is no excuse to not run back on defense, especially when you've already played 3 minutes of pretty dogshit basketball after the break. That's not a "coming back from injury" thing, that's a decision making thing.

Unfortunately, there's more of this.

We move to the 4th quarter. So much of what made Smart's first half awesome was the way he was playing within himself and the offense. During this 10 game shitfest, that is not happening. Here's an example of that

As always, time and place is important. I have zero problems if Smart takes 3PA that come with good process. The ball is moving, it swings to him, fine. Shoot that shit with confidence. That is not what we saw in that play. That's an early shot clock 3PA coming off an OREB that is not only deep(ish), but it's contested. In other words, it's a low quality decision paired with a low quality shot. Given we're now under 6 minutes in the 4th quarter, that's the type of shot Smart needs to avoid. He didn't avoid it against CLE and he didn't avoid it in this game, and the results were the same. That's not an accident.

A few minutes later, I have more issues with decision making.

I can respect Marcus wanting to be aggressive and attack the rim at this stage of the game, but again. Time and situation. There is absolutely no driving lane here

so to me this is just trying to do too much. It ended up not hurting the Celts given that the Rockets didn't score for another minute, but that's not the point. It was a momentum killing turnover that you simply cannot have in that spot. It would be a bad TO regardless of who made it, but your starting point guard has to make better decisions in that moment. 

I think it's fair to say that we're watching Smart's worst stretch of the season. The shooting will come and go, I don't ever really care about that. I care about his decision making and his approach. Since the break, about 62% of Smart's FGA have been 3PA. While he's shooting 35%, that's not the right balance. In the first 59 games that number was closer to around 54% of his FGA. His decision making was better, his approach was more balanced, and he filled his role perfectly. 

Since he came back, it's been the opposite and the team results speak for themselves.

- Of course, we can't ignore the performance of Jayson Tatum. While it's easy to pile on Smart because he's often the scapegoat, Jayson Tatum has to wake the fuck up. You're the best player, you're the MVP candidate, and expectations for you are different. I mean on what planet is this acceptable?

To throw up the performance he gave in this game is insulting, and he basically admitted it after the game

It wasn't just the start of the game either. Tatum played 1 quarter in this game, that's it. His defense was poor throughout, he refused to be aggressive until the 3rd quarter, and then he went 0-3 in the fourth, with all of his FGA coming right at the rim, including the game losing miss

In terms of the final play call, I'm OK with it. It got their best player a wide open layup at the rim. I get wanting the ball to be in Jaylen's hands because he was hot, but I think that's more a reaction to the result than anything else. If Tatum makes that layup I'm not sure people care that Jaylen didn't get the shot. At some point, you have to be able to expect your best player to finish that play strong at the rim, and not smoke the layup. We've seen Tatum do just that using this EXACT inbounds play, so to me that's on Jayson, not the play call.

Tatum and Brown have said it all season, that the team goes as they go. Just compare Tatum last night to the Tatum we saw in the two previous wins, they aren't even close to the same player. When Tatum doesn't show up or doesn't come ready to play, results like this almost always happen. His 8-22 (2-10) performances are impossible to overcome when you also factor in the rest of the roster playing poorly as well. To do that shit against the worst team in the league is just nasty business. 

The Celtics refuse to make life easy on themselves, and that's all fine and good when there are 50 games left. Not 13. They need to make sure this doesn't snowball the rest of this West Coast trip, or the Celts aren't going to like how things look by the time they get home. Sadly, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.