Danny Ainge probably isn’t getting much sleep these days. Instead of worrying about the possible superior opponents the Celtics may face in the playoffs this spring, the Celtics President of Basketball Operations real nightmare is that his team has the potential to be their own worst enemy.
If you’ve followed this year’s Celtic saga closely, you’ll agree there’s two key faults which have led to their underwhelming results. First, there were unrealistic expectations; this team had championship aspirations. Bill Simmons claimed the Celtics would win 67 games this year. Simmons may have written a 150,000 word tome on the secret to winning basketball, but he was dead wrong about this Celtic team.
I thought the Celtics were going to win 67 games. https://t.co/ABIYmurEQB
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) January 13, 2019
Secondly, the roster cohesion never even reached a competitive level, let alone a championship level. All fingers point to the best player on the team, Kyrie Irving, on this one. Irving clearly hasn’t been taking notes on Cersei Lannister in how to be an a feared leader, because all of his back stabbing has been done in the open. Unabashed remarks to the media were a regular Irving phenomenon in post game press scrums. Habits from LeBron James do die hard I guess.
In the midst of the great expectations and roster depth enthusiasm, what became an after thought was how the modified roles would take with each player. It was always assumed that everything would just fall into place perfectly. Phasing an unconfident Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back in to major roles this season was like giving two major organ transplants to a healthy human, and oh, by the way, nobody checked the blood types on the donors. Poor strategy, Doctor Ainge. The transplant was never going to be a smooth operation!
While the Celtics had achieved a thriving homeostatic condition with Hayward and Irving on the sidelines last postseason, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier became accustomed to being focal points of the team. In the months following the young guns’ first taste of major playoff success, the aforementioned trio were asked to give up a larger role in exchange for lesser ones. Essentially, Brad Stevens was trying to take away candy from the kids. Don’t try this at home.
One word to describe this ballclub’s team dynamic is egocentric. In his heart of hearts, Ainge knows the amount of collective confidence in the locker room has been slowly dwindling since October. Fortunately for Ainge and the Boston loyal, many of the top tier teams have chemistry issues too.
Sprinkled in throughout, the Celtics have shown us glimpses of the championship prowess which was originally expected of this star studded group. One such revelation was Christmas Day, when the Celts dominated the 76ers in OT. But with 82 games under belt, the roster many analysts had as the favorite to grab the first seed in the East has done little to inspire confidence for a deep playoff run. Too often the Celtics had an obvious lack of urgency and killer instinct — something Marcus Smart referred to as the team being “soft”.
Marcus Smart: "Our toughness. Our will to fight. Our will to do everything. It’s like we ain’t got the will to do it anymore."
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) February 24, 2019
The Celtics haven’t been the only team struggling to meet expectations. The Warriors, Rockets, and Sixers all experienced unexpected chemistry swoons. The Warriors, returning the same superstar cast from last year (now complete with DeMarcus Cousins for one easy payment of $5,337,000!) have been totally dysfunctional. Thinking the Celtics internal gripes were over the top? Earlier in the season, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green were in a well documented heated exchange. The on-court fight between the two reportedly climaxed with team enforcer, Green saying something along the lines of “We don’t need you.” Contextually, Green’s taunts are a terrible omen, knowing Durant enters free agency this summer. Couple that bombshell of an ego trip with a lack of regular season passion from the team that’s been to the NBA Finals four straight years (are they having team fatigue yet?) and the difficult integration of DeMarcus Cousins into the lineup and suddenly the door to the Finals in the West seems more open than it’s ever been in nearly half a decade.
The Rockets too, have had a myriad of troubles this season after last year’s near leap over the Warriors to the NBA Finals. Some say adding by subtraction is a strategy for team environments, however, letting go of integral supporting cast members like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute didn’t quite add up. Houston had a horrendous start to the year and to the League’s surprise when it took two months in the season for Houston to surpass the .500 record mark. Making matters worse, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon all sustained lengthy injuries throughout the season.
The cream of the crop of Houston riddled with injuries for a chunk of the year left James Harden as the only high caliber player left in Houston. Of course, the reigning MVP began cooking like only he knows how. Harden flourished with the team on his back and put together blistering scoring stretches, ultimately averaging over 40 points per game in January. We haven’t seen a more prolific scoring season since Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan graced the hardwood. However, the drawback to relying on Harden is the roster became one dimensional during Harden’s spectacular stint. It could prove difficult for the roster to morph back into the team which took Golden State to seven games in last season’s Western Conference Playoffs.
The Philadelphia 76ers are another case study in modern NBA dysfunction. Hired in September, new spangled Sixers general manager, Elton Brand approached his role with a radical vision; do whatever it takes to win a championship.
The result of Brand’s goal: trade away all long term assets besides Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for short term success. Since October, the Sixers have traded seven players on the original roster and added just as many, including the unpredictable Jimmy Butler. The avalanche of roster turnover has definitely hampered the Sixers. Ironically, Brand ended up in a similar predicament with his Atlantic Division competitor, Ainge. Trotting out a starting five of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid is the same type of loaded lineup that has sunk Boston’s ship. It’s easy to forget basketball is a sport where there’s only one ball. Accordingly, having a team that is good at sharing the basketball generally translates to success. So far, like Boston, the 76ers haven’t figured out their right balance. Nevertheles, having a franchise cornerstone big man like Joel Embiid, surrounded by a handful of all-star caliber offensive threats, ensure the 76ers have an extreme upside. On the contrary to the Sixers starting five, when compared with the Celtics, the Sixer bench is dramatically worse. This postseason, if the Sixers put the puzzle together faster than the Celtics, it’s game over.
These less than sparkling (contending) team profiles begs the question: Might the Celtics not be so bad after all?
Confused teams aside, there are two Eastern Conference contenders who have their shoes on the right feet. The Bucks and Raptors with the might of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard respectively, are teams to be feared.
Stacked against the success stories of the Bucks and Raptors, then logically, the Celtics are underrated heading into the playoffs. Didn’t last year’s Celtics teach anybody anything? The 2017-2018 Celts had an underdog status too, albeit for different reasons, and experienced great success.
Going into the first round, the fourth seeded Celtics are locked are poised to take on the fifth seed, Indiana Pacers. If Ainge did decide to find more time in his late night worries, he might also be concerned by the similarity of this Pacer squad and the Celtics from last May.
After losing their All-Star leader for the rest of the season in January when Victor Oladipo went down with a tough leg injury, the Pacers have remained resiliant thanks to their strong coaching presence and fluid roster makeup. Much like the Celtics, the Pacers have a great coach in Nate McMillan to keep the boat steady and inspire confidence in the next man up. Sound familiar? Without Oladipo’s dual threat on both ends of the floor, guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, and Myles Turner have stepped up confidently- just like Tatum, Brown, and Rozier did in Hayward and Irving’s absence.
The adaptability of Indiana’s roster doesn’t end there. Over-qualified role players spearhead the Pacer bench; Domantas Sabonis and Tyreke Evans are both versatile high IQ players who bring a new gear to the Pacers when they see the floor. In fact, Sabonis could be argued to be the Pacer’s most talented player with Oladipo out; he possesses fantastic footwork, runs a super effective pick and roll, and passes from the block like his legendary father, Arvydas Sabonis. Finally, filling in all the holes like super glue are veterans Cory Joseph (who is a graduate of the Gregg Popovich guard academy) and mid-season acquisition Wes Matthews. Considering how well constructed the Pacers are and the fact that they never wavered after Oladipo went down, means this is a serious playoff team.
Compliments to the Pacers aside, losing your best player usually doesn’t correlate to playoff success. Last year’s celtics were an anomaly, the Celtics just happened to have three very capable players ready to step up. The unspoken truth is the Pacers are vulnerable without Oladipo. Celtics’ announcer, Brian Scalabrine hinted at the Pacer’s struggles on the broadcast a week ago in Indiana when Mike Gorman stated his lack of confidence matching up against Indiana in the first round. Here’s what they don’t want you to know. What’s seemingly kept Indiana in good standing all whole season is their defense, led by Myles Turner. In reality the Pacers have secretly struggled post All-Star break, securing a defensive rating (110.4) and net rating (-1.1) in the bottom half of the league, compared to their stellar second best defensive rating (104.1) and fourth best net rating (5.2) Pre-All Star game.
Despite beating the Pacers handedly last week and securing home court in the first round, the Celtics will have to stay vigilant when playing this Pacers team in the Playoffs. Indiana has an unpredictability, where any guy could go off in any given night, which made last year’s Celtics so dangerous in the postseason. On the other hand, a week ago the Celtics had a determined Marcus Smart flying around the court and doing things only Marcus Smart can do. Smart will now be out for at least the first round due to an oblique tear he suffered on April 7th versus Orlando. If the Celtics proceed past the first round Smart will likely still be another week or two from returning.
Luckily, there’s a silver lining losing a X-factor guy in Smart. Smart’s absence opens up more minutes for Hayward and Brown, who in March and April have both shown flashes of the spectacular play they’re capable. No other team in the playoffs has the potential of adding game changing players increase their output more than Boston. Hayward, who is finally starting to gain his confidence back, has been hinting he is ready to step into a bigger role. Earlier this season, Hayward wasn’t comfortable on the floor. If Hayward can continue build faith in his abilities like he has in the last month, the Celtics have an ace of spades up their sleeve. You’ll know Hayward is ready mentally and physically when he is driving to the hoop with a purpose and trusting himself taking difficult shots like Irving regularly. If this Hayward shows up in the playoffs then forget about the Celtics struggling to get out of the East; the only team that could stop them would be Golden State or Houston… in the NBA Finals.