By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Five months ago, the Boston Celtics were the toast of the NBA and favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. Even with coach Brad Stevens blasting the team for lack of effort during the preseason, prognosticators blushed at the prospect of adding two healthy All-Stars to a tantalizing bunch that took LeBron to Game 7 last spring.
I picked them for 60 wins.
At this point, they could go undefeated the rest of the way and still wind up shy of that figure.
But it’s not about win total. Following last night’s 118-95 embarrassment in Toronto, their third consecutive defeat and eighth straight north of the border, I’ve finally had it. While my heart is telling me to wait until April, my brain is telling me it’s time to superkick the Celtics through the Barber Shop window.
The Raptors are a very good team. But that rancid second quarter where Boston got outscored 36-13 and turned the ball over eight times? That’s on the Celtics. At one point, they faced a 31-point deficit, their largest in four years, and the final score was the most lopsided defeat of the current campaign. The 118 points surrendered (many in the paint and from behind the three-point line) continue a stretch where their defensive rating has tanked, an alarming development given the disjointed nature of the offense and the fact that defense has been a hallmark of Stevens’ time here.
I remained optimistic through a bumpy early-season road trip that contributed to a ho-hum 10-10 start. Discounted losses to league doormats. Preached patience with Gordon Hayward. Touted the potential of young players to thrive in a legitimate championship pursuit. Stuck my fingers in my ears when the rumor mill placed Anthony Davis in Los Angeles and Kyrie Irving in New York next season. Defended Irving’s right to be agitated by social media-fueled speculation over an All-Star weekend conversation he had with Kevin Durant.
But we’ve reached the point where this season has stopped making sense. Despite Irving’s recent assurance that his presence alone will make everything all right, it’s probably time to call it and admit we were wrong about a team that’s been seemingly mired in fifth place in the Eastern Conference for as long as I can remember.
We were wrong to put our hopes in Irving as the alpha dog. This isn’t to suggest he’s been more bark than bite: 23.5 points per game on 49 percent shooting and a career high 6.9 assists per contest is worth a trip to the local Urgent Care to check for rabies. But there’s been an awful lot of barking, furthering the conjecture that he’s looking to sink his teeth into Madison Avenue come July 1.
In the meantime, there’s this weird trend where the team has won the last six games they’ve played without Irving, while dropping their last five with him. Despite public comments that he’d like to stay in Boston and analytics that support Irving’s astounding on-court value – literally and figuratively – Kyrie can’t win right now.
We were wrong to think Jayson Tatum could significantly raise his game in the presence of returning personnel during his sophomore campaign. Instead, he’s been like Cory Matthews in season two of Boy Meets World, seemingly figuring it out before sinking back to irrelevance in the next episode. Just as expectations may have been a little too high for seventh grader Matthews, Tatum isn’t legally allowed to drink until Sunday. We can at least let the kid order a Rolling Rock before anointing him The Next Jeff Green. But we’d hoped the ceiling would be higher in year two.
We were wrong to think Hayward could consistently approach the level of his pre-injury self, physically and mentally.
We were wrong thinking Danny Ainge was better off holding on to Terry Rozier, a player who can’t, for the life of him, figure out how to dial it down and be anywhere near as effective in a reserve role as he is as a starter.
While the other contenders in the East (including Toronto) loaded up at the deadline, Ainge doubled down on his squad figuring it out long-term. Three weeks later, the team that had won 10 of 11 before the deadline has dropped five out of seven.
We were wrong to think Brad Stevens, after crafting a reputation as savior to the underappreciated (in particular, a certain pint-sized point guard) and czar of the out-of-bounds whiteboard, would read Phil Jackson’s book in the offseason and become a true Zen master.
Slow to shuffle the starting lineup in the season’s early stages, Stevens has largely failed to deploy Hayward in a productive fashion. With Aron Baynes on the shelf again, the coach continues to ride Marcus Morris to diminishing returns.
And therefore, we were apparently wrong to think Boston could play their brand of defensive basketball without 32-year old journeyman banger Baynes in tow.
We were wrong thinking Jaylen Brown would fit into a small-ball starting five.
We were wrong to think Anthony Davis, who recently teamed with LeBron’s flunky to wreck the trade deadline and the future of the Pelicans franchise, would consider Boston for his championship chase.
We were wrong to think that two decades of comic ineptitude in Gotham, its last great basketball memory a ridiculous four-point play by Larry Johnson in the face of Antonio Davis back when Anthony Davis was just six years old, would render the Knicks a non-factor in free agency.
We were wrong to dream. For all of the encouraging signs of last spring, this season has been a permafrost nightmare where the Green languish 9.5 games back of gimmicky Milwaukee and a pace many thought would be set by Boston. For every peak, there has been a valley. Even Indiana – playing under similar circumstances to last year’s Celtics – without Victor Oladipo, is playing better basketball and has a leg up in the standings.
The Green will conclude the regular season with a .500 record against the Raptors. Boston’s two wins at TD Garden required Herculean performances by Irving, who averaged 35 points and 14.5 assists on 64% shooting. Even if the Celtics flip the proverbial switch, like the 2010 edition, they’ll be the away team throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Certainly not the situation we envisioned approaching the Ides of March.
For so many reasons, we were wrong.
Unless we weren’t.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.