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The Celtics Getting Swept By The Nuggets Made It Crystal Clear That There Are Levels To Becoming An NBA Champion

Bart Young. Getty Images.

When you are a team that sits 48-14 and have all the talent in the world, there are only a handful of games on your 82 game schedule that are true barometer type matchups. For a team with title aspirations and title level talent, the true barometer for them will always be the current champs. To be the best, you have to beat the best, so of all the matchups we see the Celts have, if you want to be having the conversation around winning a title, then games against DEN are the ones to use.

Now having lost both meetings by a total of 8 points, what did we learn?

For me, it was more of a confirmation of what I think we all knew heading into this year, and something that we've known for a few seasons now. These two games showed us while there may not be a huge gap between them, that small gap is the most important piece of winning a title. It's not as if the Celts were blown out in both games and couldn't go blow to blow with the defending champs. They were within 2 points in the final minutes of both meetings. That's the good sign.

But we were also shown the difference between a superstar who has reached the top of the mountain, and a star player who is hoping to one day break through. As we've all known, this team will only go as far as Jayson Tatum is going to take them. In these types of games, and especially in the playoffs, for you to win a title you need your best player to consistently show up at a top 5 or better level. We saw Jokic level up last year, Steph leveled up the year before, Giannis the year before that etc. If you don't, your team is not winning the title.

That's what these two games have shown. That despite the new roster, despite the improved coaching staff, at the end of the day breaking through to that new level requires Jayson Tatum to not just show up, but to be impactful. When you look at the difference in how both #1 guys performed, we aren't even in the same galaxy

Admittedly, nobody on the planet is slowing down Jokic, so this isn't really about his production. How he's played in both games is how he plays in every game, that's why he's the best player on the planet. 

This is more about the idea that against the best of the best, we can't have this level of Tatum. On a night where the Celts didn't play great, it's not like they were a complete disaster. They were right there. There are going to be playoff games that look JUST like the game we saw last night, even before a potential Finals rematch with DEN. This level of Tatum is not going to cut it. The mental mistakes from everyone else on top of that isn't going to cut it. 

To beat the champs, you have to play nearly flawless basketball while your best players are also not in witness protection. That's the reality. I think it's safe to say that did not happen in either matchup, which is why the heartwrenching close loss stands out. 

The Celts are close, 60+ games worth of evidence tells us that. But you don't become champions by being close. That's the difference. The Nuggets made it clear what it looks like when you are able to get to that extra level and come through in games like last night, and it starts with their best player. 

We have a lot to get to, so let's dive in.

The Good

- This was one of the more bizarre Jaylen Brown performances we may have ever seen. If someone asked me to describe Jaylen as a player, I think I would give them this game

Let's be very clear about something. The Celtics get run out of the gym if not for Jaylen carrying the offense. His 41/14/4/2 on 16-29 (2-7) was beyond massive, he only had 2 TOs in his 41 minutes and was only one of three starters to finish with a positive +/- (+5).

Let's be very clear about something else. Going 7-14 from the FT is absolutely abhorrent. In a game you lost by 6, that feels pretty significant. Last night was the first time IN 6 YEARS that a Celtic missed at least 6 FTs in a game, and that was Abdel Nadar. You cannot have that from your #2 guy.

But at the same time, when you add in his defense and the fact that he more than showed up offensively, despite the god awful FT production the Celtics got more than enough from Jaylen to win this game.

Does it give you concerns for a playoff game where Jaylen is going to have to make his FTs? Of course. Going 7-14 will do that do anyone. But what we saw was a player who understood how big this game was and made sure that he did his part on both ends of the floor. For all the talk about Jaylen's ECF last year, a game like last night felt more familiar. When the lights get bright, Jaylen tends to show up more often than not.

So when you add it all up, it's a weird place to be. Jaylen was awesome, but the one area he struggled in proved to be VERY costly. Yet without him, they get destroyed. What do we make of that? 

I think the answer is that to win a title, you need to not just be awesome at the big stuff, but you need to be awesome around the margins as well. The small things, like making FTs, matter. The way Tatum has to level up, this is where Jaylen has to level up. The small details. Making his FTs, not turning the ball over, things like that. 

- His shot faded a little late, but overall I thought Porzingis played well in both of these meetings against Jokic. He had 21/8/2 on 6-11 (3-5) in the first meeting and then another 24/12/2/1/1 on 9-23 (3-10) last night ending things at a +6 in his 35 minutes

I'm not going to get too worked up about his inability to completely shut down Jokic in the post because come on, who is doing that? All I ask in those moments is to just make it as tough as possible. The thing is, neither of these guys can really guard the other. KP struggles with Jokic down low, Jokic struggles with KP in space

I thought KP's balance between 3PA and paint FGA was fine, and his 4 FTA did feel a little light, especially on his jumpers on switches against a smaller defender. But just like with Jaylen, I would say that KP gave this team enough to win. If this is how he plays in this matchup should they meet in the Finals, I do believe that's good enough. 

- Alright that's really it. Let's move on.

The Bad

- I've done a lot of thinking as to why last night (and really both DEN games) feels worse than it may be in reality, and I think it's because watching it, we saw all of the potential ways this team may lose in the playoffs. Just go down the list

1. A Tatum no show

2. Sloppy turnovers

3. Jrue with a playoff dropper type of offensive showing

4. Derrick disappearing offensively like it was the 2022 Finals

5. Missed FTs

6. KP's 3 going cold and him not getting the whistle on midrange jumpers, which miss

7. Late game opponent OREB

8. Lack of clutch time defensive stops

9. Some sort of prayer statistical anomaly (think Heat 3s, this time someone missing 7 FTs)

To get that all in one game and still be alive is impressive, but it's exactly how any postseason loss is going to look. Last night was an example of what things look like when our fears become reality.

There's a part of every Celtics fan that is nervous about Holiday morphing into the postseason dropper offensively he seemed to be as a Buck. If you look at how Holiday has played in "big" games this year against contending teams, the numbers are not great

vs DEN (2x): 9/3/2.5 on 47/33%

vs MIL (2x): 5.5/6.0/1.5 on 17/11%

vs OKC: 7.0/5.0/7.0 on 25/40%

That's not going to cut it against a caliber of team you're most likely going to see in a playoff run, and why there's some sort of basis for concern. All the talk about how "it won't be a problem because Holiday is asked to be the 5th option" hasn't really translated when it comes to these big matchups.  

There's also a fear that KP will go cold and then not get the whistles he gets in normal regular season games. When teams are allowed to be more physical in the playoffs, that will make a difference. 

We're all nervous about things like TOs and lack of rebounding/defense, considering it's those things that played a role in ending the Celtics season in previous years.

So while this was an early March regular season game, the way the Celtics lost being the things we as fans are most nervous about in a playoff run is why it may be unsettling to some. 

- When you are playing the defending champs, a team that has not only done it, but knows what it takes to reach the level needed to win a title, you cannot fuck around when it comes to the margins. A play here or there can be the deciding factor. Regardless of how talented your team is, if you can't handle the details by the time you add them all up, you won't like the result.

Multiple free points being given because of techs, giving up end of quarter buzzer beaters (5 total points), turnovers, missed FTs, lack of effort and energy, late game OREBs. These small things become very big things when you are trying to take down the champs.

I would argue that the Celts have figured out the "big" things when it comes to this journey. They gave the talent, they have the system, they have the experience. But until they figure out how to also handle the small stuff, things will continue to look the same. Just compare it to what we saw from DEN. They barely turn it over, they get a good shot pretty much every time down, they made their FTs, etc. 

In other words, the Nuggets rarely if ever beat themselves. The Celts still have to figure out how to get past that if they want to get to the top of the mountain.

- Part of that is understanding you cannot be lazy with the basketball. I don't even know how to defend some of this shit

Those are the 3 best players on the team by the way. This is partly what made last night so infuriating. Stop being careless with the basketball! If the Celts pass the ball around like this in a playoff game/series, they are going to get crushed. You have to respect the possession game. When you know that Jokic and the Nuggets can get a high quality look whenever they want, you taking care of the ball becomes even more important. 

The Celts allowed 16 points off turnovers in a game they lost by 6. The fact that these were essentially all live ball turnovers where the majority ended in points, that's a big fucking problem. Tatum, Jaylen and KP are going to have the ball in their hands A LOT in a playoff series, and for them to be so lazy and careless when it came to passing the ball is beyond inexcusable. Are they just not paying attention? Were they now aware of where the help was going to come from? 

To me, it was similar to the Cavs game. If you don't respect the game and play the right way, the Basketball Gods will make you pay. 

- One thing these games against the Nuggets also showed us is how much better the Celts still need to be at the end of quarters. These are the moments where the championship level teams show why they are championship level and well…

We then saw the Nuggets close the 2nd on a 11-4 run. In the 3rd, they closed the final 4 minutes on a 12-9 run. In the 4th, they made the plays down the stretch to seal it.

The point is, these are the small margins I'm talking about. To beat a team like the Nuggets, you HAVE to play the full 12 minutes of a quarter, raising your level of play in the final 2-3 minutes. It's not something that would be "good to have", it's a requirement. The Nuggets have owned this scenario in every quarter they've played against the Celts, and it should surprise no one they are 2-0.

This is the other potential playoff concern, because this is how momentum swings. Instead of heading into a locker room maybe down 4, now you're down 8. Instead of going in with a double digit lead, now it's a two possession game and the feeling has shifted.

Champions step on throats, teams still trying to get there let their throats be stepped on.

- It goes without saying that for the Celts to win the title, they can't get a collective no show from their starting backcourt. Derrick White has been pretty invisible offensively over these last two losses, and while I think he's been fine as a defender and playmaker, they need his offensive production. A 3-8 (0-4) isn't going to cut it, and the concern there is it felt like once his shot wasn't dropping he became less aggressive. 

That's exactly what 2022 Finals Derrick did, and we saw how that turned out. Now bald and much better, we can't still have that mentality. His spacing is too important to morph into a non-factor offensively.

- 28-10 in bench points can't be ignored either, as you'll remember there was also another massive bench points difference in the Cavs loss.

The issue here isn't that the Celtics bench stinks, it's that nobody ever really shoots. No bench player took more than 3 FGA. Compare that to the Nuggets second unit (14-23) and you can see the difference. 

This isn't to say the Celts need to run plays for Al or Hauser or anything like that. But it's to point out bench production is important. You can't have guys playing 10+ minutes and taking 1 or 2 shots. 

- The Celtics had a 144 clutch time defensive rating in this game. So much is made about the clutch time offense, and watching a game like last night I don't see how that's more important to people than their defense. There were zero stops down the stretch, and even in the moments they did force a miss, they allowed an OREB for points.

Scoring will always be important, but if you don't defend, you die. It's as simple as that.

- 9 missed FTs as a team. 9. In a game like this? Fuck you for that.

The Ugly

- There's really only one thing to put here, and that's the play of Jayson Tatum. Not only was it not good enough, it wasn't anywhere fucking close. When the Celts have needed him to come through these last two games, this is what we've had

When it came time for Tatum to shut everyone up, this is what we got

Listen, it may not be fair, but this is the responsibility of the #1 guy. If you want to win a title, you can't no show huge games like this. Ever. How many times did we see Tatum give a shit effort to box someone out? How many times did we see him lose his man (Gordon in the dunker spot) for easy points? How did you like his body language? 

This is the version of Tatum that we've seen get the Celtics 14 playoff wins. That's great, but that's not the goal. The goal is 16 wins. For this team to get those final 2, Tatum has to not just show up, but be dominant. A game like this doesn't mean he can't or won't, but what it does do is illustrate what things look like when he doesn't while going up against a champion. 

At the end of the day, this entire plan depends on Tatum being that guy. There's no more Marcus Smart to blame. The talent is there. There really are no more excuses. He's either going to do it, or he isn't.

If he does, the Celtics will win the title. If he doesn't, they won't. 

Sorry to oversimplify things, but that's the honest truth. We've seen Tatum show up in HUGE playoff moments with all the pressure of the world on his shoulders. We know he can do it. The final step is not having to wonder if this is a night where Tatum is going to disappear. When is the last time you think a Nuggets fan EVER said that about Jokic?

That's the difference.

As dominant as the Celtics have been so far this season, these two games against the Nuggets show just how far they still have to go. The flaws we saw in this matchup are the same flaws they are going to have to overcome in a playoff run, and while it's clear they can hang with the champs and give themselves a chance, what remains to be seen is if they can figure out a way to get over the hump and close those games out. That's a question we'll only know the answer to once we get playoffs, but if this team wants to win the whole thing, it looks like they are going to have to go through the Nuggets to do it.