After their 117-102 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last night, the Boston Celtics are dangerously close to falling back to .500. Following a promising win streak, the Celtics have fallen into bad habits and have lost four of their previous seven games. At this point of the season, we have to ask whether the Celtics, now 10th place in the Eastern Conference, are doomed to a return trip to the play-in tournament.
Yes, it’s only the start of December, but we’ve seen precious little evidence that this Celtics team is currently designed to get much deeper into the playoffs than the previous incarnation. This continues to feel just like the final Boston seasons of both Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker.
When you look at the moves the Celtics made in the offseason, they didn’t improve on paper, talent-wise. The Celtics sent Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Al Horford for budgetary reasons. Even if Horford is currently outplaying Walker, it still feels like it will be (at best) a lateral move in the long term. While the Celtics have found a bargain in Dennis Schröder, who they signed with the midlevel extension, but they also lost Evan Fournier to the New York Knicks.
The hope was that the moves would mean that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who could also both benefit from a coaching change, would get more time with the ball in their capable hands. Making such a move for potential chemistry reasons isn’t necessarily a bad move: a good team that is playing together well tends to have the advantage of a more talented one that can’t quite put things together. At the moment, however, it feels like that latter description fits this version of the Celtics more than the former.
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It hasn’t helped that the team’s two stars rarely seem to get a chance to play together. In the team’s latest setback, Brown has been out for the previous three games with hamstring issues. The Celtics have not responded positively to this development.
While Tatum currently looks as locked in offensively as he has all season—against Los Angeles, he scored the team’s first 14 points—the Celtics defense has allowed 100+ points within those games, including 117 in a blowout win against the Portland Trail Blazers and a whopping 137 to the red-hot three-point shooting Utah Jazz. They own the worst defensive rating in the NBA during that time period.
Now, the Celtics can tell themselves that these last three games were all part of a west coast road trip, which tend to be the Celtics’ Kryptonite. Still, there was a worrisome lack of effort on the team’s part last night, something noticed by head coach Ime Udoka.
“I felt we were out hustled, out-toughed a little bit,” Udoka said after the game, noting their defensive lapses in particular, “they wanted to put their head down and get to the basket, and they did too easily.”
It won’t be easy for the Celtics to quickly righten the ship. They will have to march themselves right back to the soon-to-be-renamed Staples Center to face the Los Angeles Clippers tonight on short rest. Any sort of win would be welcome at this point of the season, but it will take more evidence than that to answer the main questions lingering around their 2021-22 season. At least in the positive.