Ever since Danny Ainge broke up the “Bridgies” – Brad Stevens’ beloved band of overachievers who played hard but weren’t anybody’s pick to bring home the hardware – and traded for Kyrie Irving, expectations for the Celtics have been through the roof.
And we’ve been miserable.
We were miserable when Gordon Hayward broke his ankle. Even more miserable when he returned and wasn’t the same player. We were miserable when it became increasingly evident that Irving didn’t plan to spend any more time in Boston than required by the fine print of his contract.
We were miserable when last year’s squad bricked what seemed to be a layup Finals berth, bowing out to the Miami Heat in the Conference Finals.
The only time we were truly happy was when Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and a depleted roster gifted fans a surprise trip to Game 7 of the East Finals against LeBron.
Expectations were temporarily disabled. It didn’t matter that they frittered away a chance at something more because the young guys showed us a glimpse of what was truly possible, and we were confident they’d cash in somewhere down the line.
Almost three years later, Brown and Tatum are All-Stars.
And we’re miserable again.
The Green have lost three straight to inferior opponents (amid a spate of setbacks against lesser teams) and currently sit ninth in the East with a 15-17 record. It hasn’t been fun to watch: poor shot selection, a leaky defense, the inability to finish teams off when they do have the lead – not things we’ve come to expect during Stevens’ time in Boston.
Toss in the general lethargy, and many wonder how hard this team is even trying.
Brown and Tatum – only recently removed from their days as complementary pieces – pack the numbers to back up the hype. But they’ve labored with the demands of scoring the basketball and facilitating for teammates with Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart missing time.
“Now, it’s on them. Now they’re the stars,” Ainge admitted to Toucher and Rich. “And they’ve got the big contracts and they’ve got the All-Star nods, so the microscope is on them.”
Venerable broadcast lead Mike Gorman didn’t mince words in his criticism of the team’s play.
“It’s terrific when you can get 27 a night, but how about 22 and the C’s win the game?”
It’s a universal truth that ball movement is fun to watch when the result is a made basket. But the supporting cast hasn’t been making a lot of them. We want the young guys to be good, want them to grow into supporting roles, and maybe some will. But Brown and Tatum haven’t had a ton of help.
It’s in bold, italics and underlined when Walker sits the second half of a back-to-back. With a healthy Kemba, there’s little argument the Celtics boast one of the most impressive offensive trios in the league. But when Kemba sits, the drop off has been tectonic. The C’s are have one win in those five games. And they’ve lost four straight without Walker and Smart on the floor.
In two of those losses – against the Kings and Hawks – Tristan Thompson stepped forward as the third banana. He combined for 31 points across the two contests, his assortment of jump hooks and putbacks getting the job done on an economical 17 shots.
In a loss to the Pistons, Daniel Theis stepped forward with 11 points on a less efficient 4-of-12 from the floor.
How do you feel about Tristan Thompson or Daniel Theis as your third leading scorer?
When Thompson won an NBA championship (in 2016, with the Cavaliers), he was a sixth or seventh option. I think the same would be preferred of Theis, a fine all-around player, but not a guy who jots down a list of goals for the night with “score” at the top.
“We’re playing terribly,” said Ainge. “We don’t have a good enough team, in my opinion.”
“We need more scoring off the bench.”
Recently, first round pick Aaron Nesmith has shown good hustle, improved awareness, and has knocked down eight of his last 15 three-point attempts going back to Valentine’s Day. But he’s taking three or four shots a night. Perhaps there’s a gripe there. Maybe Robert Williams, making 72 percent of his field goals, deserves more minutes and an increased role in the offense. Or Semi Ojeleye, who’s shown flashes of brilliance.
We’d like to see those guys contribute. But night to night, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
That’s a jagged little pill to many. This was supposed to be a contender. Now, it looks like the only way that happens is if Ainge swings for the fences with a trade. Given the deficit of supporting talent on the roster, the boss has to maximize the return on a $28.5 million trade exception, and he continues to hedge toward summer as the time to do it.
Perhaps we were quick to anoint Brown and Tatum. After all, a little more than a year ago, Tatum was shooting 42 percent, awkwardly piling up 5-for-18 nights before exploding for a career-high 41 points against the Pelicans on a Saturday night and putting the league on notice.
Brown’s emergence is a tender shoot by comparison. Sure, he was a consistent Robin to Tatum’s Batman in the second half of last season, but he’s been on another level this year.
Suddenly, the Celtics’ young guns have ridden that steel horse right over their teammates. And they’re facing the music.
We want them to be great; the NBA’s elite franchises all boast dynamic duos. And as Boston parachutes with no cord further away from its status as a city of champions, fans are desperate for that next big thing. We don’t want to be reminded of how young these guys are, particularly when Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic and Trae Young – all younger than Brown and Tatum – had their way with the C’s over the past week and a half.
There’s still plenty of time for the pieces to fall into place: if Walker’s healthy, Smart gets back into the lineup, and Ainge adds some scoring and toughness at the deadline, they might well turn some heads.
Until then, this is a team with some of the elements of an NBA champion, but no chemical bond. They’re not deep enough. They’re not mean enough. How and if they salvage the season will either be a blueprint for future success or a fable of missed opportunity.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.