Luka Doncic did it again last night. The Latvian superstar nailed two step-back threes to sink the Boston Celtics, the final hitting nothing but net with 0.1 seconds remaining in the game. For those who tune in regularly, it was a fairly standard 2021 Celtics affair; stretches of solid play for the first two-three quarters, then an abysmal stretch that results in a double-digit deficit, followed by a furious two-minute comeback, and finally a collapse in the waning moments of the game that leaves everyone disappointed.
It's been the story all season long, and that's why the Celtics currently sit at 15-16. It is the first time they have held a record below .500 in six years. Which is a crazy stat on its own. It's a stat that also conveys the fact that Boston has hit its lowest point in years.
That wasn't supposed to happen this season. Boston's young guns were supposed to learn from their Eastern Conference Finals run in Orlando during the bubble playoffs. It's one of the natural steps taken by teams working their way towards contention, a deep postseason run ended because the opposing team out-executed them. Instead they have stumbled and fallen in a year where a "leap" was supposed to be taken. Why is that?
Availability of key players has certainly played a big role. Jayson Tatum tested positive for COVID in the early going of the season and the man himself said he's been impacted by the lingering aftereffects even following his negative tests and return to play. Kemba Walker missed the first third of the year and has spent the last month trying to shoot his way back into form. Marcus Smart strained his calf and has missed the last two weeks. Rob Williams seems to come down with a minor ailment every time he starts putting together great stretches of play.
But that isn't an excuse that can be used this year, because every team is dealing with it in a similar capacity. The Mavericks were missing Kristaps Porzingis in their win last night. The Pelicans were missing Steven Adams when they beat Boston on Sunday. The Hawks didn't have De'Andre Hunter when they split a pair of games against the Celtics last week. Everybody is missing key players. The Celtics just haven't been able to win with the pieces they have on hand.
The biggest issue is that the Celtics play down to their competition. Their last 13 games include losses to the Kings (12th in the West right now), the Pistons (15th in the East), the Wizards (who have turned it around but are still 13th in the East), the Hawks (11th in the East), and the Pelicans (11th in the West). The thing is, that stretch also includes wins against the Clippers (2nd in the West), the Raptors (5th in the East), and the Nuggets (7th in the West but with an MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic).
There is no way to discern how that happens. Brad Stevens deserves his share of the blame. I'm not really on the Fire Brad Stevens train that has gained a lot of momentum lately, especially because one of his biggest criticisms is that his rotations are sometimes bizarre and anyone who has watched this team knows Stevens experiments with lineup combos during the regular season to see what works in the playoffs. But whatever he's telling his guys behind the scenes isn't working. He might be too even-keeled. Sometimes athletes need a spark to really find their stride. But whatever it is, Stevens has this team in a rut and needs to get them out of it one way or the other.
You know who would really help that? Kemba Walker, who has been terrible. He said himself that physically he feels fine and the knee issue that kept him out to begin the year. The fact that he's averaging 19 points per game on 38 percent shooting from the floor over the last nine contests is simply mental. The Celtics would obviously rather have him sorting that out in February rather than summertime when the games really matter, but the funk is severely affecting the team's chances to win.
Boston obviously has the talent to be a good team. Tatum and Brown are together averaging 61 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists per game at 22 and 24-years-old, respectively. Boston is one game under .500. This isn't a catastrophic failure over which heads should roll. But they should be much better. Why they aren't can only be answered by the men inside the locker room. Because from the outside, it's simply puzzling.