By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It wasn’t very long ago that the Celtics were the best team in the NBA.
As expected, they leveled off and returned to earth shortly after their impressive 16-game win streak captivated the NBA. But even then the Celtics, flaws and all, were still a very good basketball team.
Heading into the All-Star break with just 23 games remaining in the regular season, the Celtics, at the moment, are not a very good basketball team. They’ve dropped four of their last five games and nine of their last 15, and those flaws they were able to overcome in the middle months of the season are becoming too insurmountable to conquer. The whole “get down big early and come back late” sitcom has been cancelled, their ball movement has been stuck in the mud for weeks, and the once dominant Boston defense isn’t even pedestrian anymore. The Celtics have tumbled to 28th in the NBA in defensive rating since the calendar turned to 2018, with the team giving up a season-high in points Wednesday night in their 129-119 defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers.
A few weeks ago it seemed like the road to the NBA Finals would be paved through Boston, but that avenue has so many potholes now that it’s too dangerous to navigate. The Celtics hit All-Star weekend at 40-19, two games back of the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference.
Head coach Brad Stevens cautioned everyone earlier this season that his team wasn’t as good as their record showed. He was right all along, and now he has a week to patch things up before the Celtics return to action.
“I don’t think we’re all that we were cracked up to be during our 16-game winning streak, and it’s probably hit us more in the last month than it hit us before,” Stevens said after Wednesday’s loss. “We have no excuses. I told our guys excuses are contagious. Everybody else has been playing too. … At the end of the day, excuses are contagious — go play.”
Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are heading to All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, but his fifth All-Star appearance is the furthest thing from Irving’s mind.
“I’m thinking about so many things right now, just from a standpoint of how to be better, because I know what’s coming. I have to communicate that with our guys. And just prepare them better. So I gotta prepare for myself and then go from there,” he said. “Going into All-Star break, I’m thinking about what’s happening after.
“How we respond and what we’re doing after and where our focus is and where we are mentally. That’ll really be the difference and then the physical — that can take care of itself with experience. You gotta want it. I know I want that mother (expletive). Excuse my language,” said Irving.
Boston’s leading scorer knows this is the time of the year when teams should be rounding into form for the playoffs. The Celtics are doing the opposite.
“This is like the stakes are at their highest. Teams are starting to sneak into their playoff positions and teams are starting to shape into what they’re going to be going into the playoffs. And that’s where my focus is. So obviously the last month and some change of some games, we’ve had some slippage,” he said. “But my focus is how to get the group to be better. Teams are raising their level. I have to figure out a way to get this group to another gear. Other teams are starting to get their gears. It’s about that time.”
Stevens is already working on some potential cures, hinting that there will be changes to his rotation when the Celtics hit the floor again Feb. 23 in Detroit. Don’t expect any major shakeups to the starting five, but Stevens has to figure out a way to get his team back on track.
“It’s going to be a tough ending if we don’t change a little bit, and I’ll look at what I can change, as well,” Stevens said after Wednesday night’s loss. “I think we’re probably due for some of that. … We’ll look at everything.”
What’s become clear is the Celtics are not part of the NBA’s elite, and when they’re not at the top of their game it’s tough to even put them in the league’s second tier. They should be somewhere in the middle, inching closer to that elite group, but we’re currently left wondering how they stack up with the rest of the rest in the East. The scary part isn’t that Toronto is playing at a whole different level right now or the Cavaliers are invigorated by their deadline day trade spree, but that teams like the Sixers, Pacers, Wizards and Heat are currently legitimate threat to upend Boston’s hopes to make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
While this rough patch has been discouraging, all is not lost for the Celtics and there is time to fix this current mess before the playoffs. They have the right guy in charge in Stevens, whose Celtics have played their best basketball in the later part of the season in each of the last three years. Hopefully the overplayed Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum can leap over the wall they’ve recently hit and come back from the break energized and recharged for the final stretch. Boston will also get Marcus Smart back when they return, which should cure most of the ills that have plagued the defense over the last few weeks. The schedule also opens up a bit, and while there are two playoff-like matchups with the Raptors in the final two weeks of the season, 12 of Boston’s final 23 games are against teams on the outside of the playoff picture. Unfortunately, those are the kinds of teams the Celtics have been losing to lately.
As soon as Gordon Hayward went down five minutes into the new year, we all expected this to be a bit of a roller coaster ride of a season. That’s exactly how it’s played out so far, with some high highs, low lows and wild loops in between. Now we’re left bracing for the final seven weeks of the regular season, unsure if the Celtics will get back to an upward climb or a terrifying plummet.
They probably won’t return to being the world beaters they were early in the season, but they shouldn’t be as bad as they’ve been lately. We’ll find out who the real Celtics are soon enough.