There’s no getting around it. The Celtics haven’t looked very sharp lately. There was the Clippers game blowout, some shaky wins over New Orleans and Indy, and then the embarrassing loss against the shorthanded Lakers. In isolation, any of these games could be written off as “one of those days” but when you cobble them together, it becomes more concerning. Just how concerning is a matter of debate.
The Celtics have all the firepower and talent that you could ask for. So from my viewpoint (on my comfy couch) it seems like it is just a problem of human nature. They stand firmly in first place with a 4.5-game cushion. So naturally, there are going to be days when the sense of urgency just isn’t there — in particular, when an opponent is missing two superstars.
That’s a problem because we’ve all learned that on any given day any team can rise up and steal a win if you don’t take them seriously and put in the right level of energy. The job is to perform day in and day out, regardless of opponent. Of course that’s easier said by a blogger on his couch than it is to perform on the court.
We want our stars to be flawless. To achieve those levels of success. You really have to be a monomaniac on a mission. Think Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett. They had that killer mentality, hyper-competitiveness, dialed up to 11 every minute of every day. Some select few are just wired that way and when you add in athletic talent, there’s no limit to what they can achieve.
Of course there’s a price to pay as well. I’m not the first to suggest that it can’t be healthy to live your life that way. Just go back and watch The Last Dance to see what I mean. MJ is still salty about perceived slights that may or may not have happened 30 years ago.
I do think that Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and the rest of the Celtics are super competitive. They might even be in the top 1% in the world (if there were a way to measure something like that). You don’t achieve their level of success without it. But perhaps they also have a healthy degree of perspective and balance as well. They allow themselves to fail and learn from those failures.
This doesn’t excuse the losses and slippage of play. The job is to win every game, but even the best teams will have lulls and slumps. What really matters the most is what happens in the postseason. Are the recent focus struggles something that will disappear when the challenge of the playoffs ramps up? Or is there some undercurrent issue going to raise its ugly head when it matters the most?
We have two recent examples to refer to. One is last year’s Celtics team that started off blazing hot, cooled off somewhat, and then lost their footing against the Heat in the playoffs (aided by some fluky shooting outliers). The other reference point is last year’s Denver Nuggets. Much was made about their seemingly aimless final few months of the regular season. But when the playoffs rolled around, the proverbial switch was flipped and they rode their superstar all the way to a title. It is worth noting that Nikola Jokic is able to dominate the game while also scouting horses halfway across the globe.
Call me over-optimistic if you want, but I tend to think that once the playoffs roll around, this team will be able to lock in and (mostly) stay focused on the challenge at hand. The key will be picking up wins early enough in the series to give themselves a margin of error if more fluky outliers happen later in the series.
The Celtics have the All-Star break coming up and it seems like they need the R&R. They also have the 2nd easiest remaining strength of schedule according to Tankathon. The team has an opportunity to do some experimenting with different rotations, schemes, and plays. If they retain their focus, they can still keep piling up the wins. (A big “if” based on recent play, but still)
The trade deadline or buyout season might be a good opportunity to add a new face and perhaps inject a slightly different element into the formula, even if that player doesn’t end up playing a ton in the playoffs.
One of the biggest challenges that a coaching staff has is to continually get the right level of focus and energy out of their players. Every one is wired differently and finding those right buttons to push and picking your spots of when to push them is incredibly tricky (and a moving target because people develop and grow over time).
Will this team figure things out in the spring? That might depend on the habits that they form the rest of this winter. We just won’t know for sure until we get there.