The Boston Celtics continued their middling season last night by losing to the Dallas Mavericks, 113-108. It was a familiar loss, too; the Celtics sleep-walked their way through three quarters of play, fell into a deep hole, then frantically attempted to dig themselves out by way of a massive comeback that ultimately fell short.
Boston now sits below .500 once more, eighth in the Eastern Conference at 23-25. It's a far cry from preseason expectations after the same core group made an ECF run in the Orlando bubble. A team starring Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker should be better than this, much less a team that also boasts a new-and-improved Jaylen Brown. Fair or not, much of the blame has fallen on Brad Stevens and there have been multiple instances throughout the season where Twitter fans and radio call-ins alike team up to demand Stevens' dismissal.
Those opinions obviously are not worth very much in the grand scheme of things. Danny Ainge's thoughts are the only ones that truly matter in terms of decisions to be made. And for his part, the GM believes the players are at fault here. Ainge expressed that thought on Toucher and Rich this morning.
This might seem like an unusually strong statement coming from an active GM on sports talk radio, but it's par for the course for Ainge. He has always been a bit more forthcoming than expected in radio interviews and occasionally uses the platform to push a point that he undoubtedly has been expressing within the organization.
Is Ainge right? It's kind of hard to say from outside the building. More than any other sport, the methods of NBA coaches and their successes are nebulous for us fans. So much of that success is predicated on behind-the-scenes action. Callers into 98.5 The Sports Hub can rant and rave all they want about how Stevens should be fired for the failures of the team this season, but none of them can point to any reason why other than the team's record. Stevens' rotations make sense and he isn't trotting out insane lineups. Things are simply not working.
It does feel like there is a substantial lack of energy and urgency within this Celtics team. Most nights it appears as though everyone is just going through the motions. When shots are falling at an above-average rate, that's fine. But in every other circumstance, Boston isn't talented enough to coast against any team in the league.
There are plenty of reasons that could be pointed to as an explanation for that. The Celtics played into September and had two months to recover from a grueling postseason run. The Lakers, Heat, and Nuggets all did the same; only the Nuggets have emerged relatively unscathed, and that's due to the emergence of Nikola Jokic as an undisputed top-five player in the league. Even then, Denver is only fifth in the West and it took Jamal Murray two months to really get going. Los Angeles lost both their superstars due to injury and the Heat are only one game above the Celtics in the standings after a brutal start to the season.
The deeper a team went in 2020, the worse they've performed in 2021. That is part of the reason why you have the Jazz (first-round exit last year) and the Nets (first-round exit) at the top of each conference at this juncture. Then there's the COVID factor, which Tatum said severely affected his conditioning, and the various bumps and bruises that have forced key players like Brown, Walker, and Marcus Smart to miss enough games to compromise on-court chemistry.
But all of that doesn't change the fact that this particular team looks disinterested in playing competitive basketball more often than not. When they do, they're already down double-digits. That characteristic is not a standard mark of Brad Stevens teams. He, at least, has a half-decade of evidence to prove that much. Maybe Ainge is right and maybe the players will listen. But they're running out of time.