(The NBA postseason begins in less than a month, and let’s just say it’s been a rather up-and-down season for our Boys in Green. While there’s still 10 games left to go in the regular season, Mattes and Dom are here with their take on the Celtics’s play this season and where things stand with the team heading into the home stretch.)
MATTES: I’ll be honest, heading into the year I never thought I’d see this team sitting 10 games out of the top spot in the East with 10 games left to go in the season. After they were mere minutes from an NBA Finals appearance last season – without their best player, mind you – I (and pretty much everyone else) am shocked to see them sitting in freakin’ FIFTH at the moment. After two tough losses this week, the Celtics are now four games behind Philly for the 3-seed and a half-game behind Indy for fourth place. At the moment, they wouldn’t even get home home-court advantage in the first round!
If things stand pat – and they probably will, especially with Kyrie saying he’s probably going to take some time off to rest before the playoffs – the Celtics are likely to take on the Pacers in the first round. (The Pistons are 5.5 games behind the C’s, and unless The Green absolutely collapse, they should get either the fourth or fifth seed and play Indy either way.)
So, Dom, how are you feeling with just 3.5 weeks left in the season? Do you feel OK with this squad heading into postseason play? Kyrie said back in February that all that matters is getting to the dance, and basically that the regular season is overrated. Do you agree?
DOM: I both agree and disagree with what Kyrie says. The big reason being that home court is important, no matter how much players and coaches try to downplay it in press conferences. The Celtics are under .500 on the road but 29-14 at home. That’s important. We’re about to start playing the best teams in the league, and although I think any team in the East will have a hard time beating us in seven games, being able to play in a building that you dominate in is a massive advantage. Combine that with the fact that since February 1, we’re 4-8 against playoff teams, so we’re going to need all the help we can get. However, I do agree with Kyrie in the sense that there’s no point risking injury in the regular season if you know where you’ll end up in the playoffs. I’d actually like him to take the less important games off so we can get Terry, Tatum, and the rest of the cast feeling better about themselves for the playoff push.
As far as preseason predictions, I’m glad I didn’t put any money on this team like I originally wanted to. That’s for sure. I think we’ll move into the 4-seed by the end of the season, as the Pacers are fading and have a really tough schedule ahead. We also get to play them twice, so that’ll be a nice postseason preview. Still, though, fourth? I’d call you an idiot if you said that to me six months ago. As for predictions now, safe money has them getting knocked out in the second round by the Bucks.
MATTES: I agree that making preseason predictions can often be a fool’s errand, but there is no doubt this team has severely underachieved. Yes, the Bucks and Raptors (especially the Bucks) are also far exceeding expectations, and Philly got even better by adding two studs (Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris) to their already loaded roster since last year. And I definitely did not expect an Indiana Pacers team which lost their best player (Victor Oladipo) for the season two months ago to still be hanging tough with the big boys in the East. So some might say that the surrounding competition is simply a lot better than we thought it would be.
Honestly, though, I think it is much more about the Celtics themselves, as you even said they are 4-8 against current playoff teams since February 1. That includes teams out West, who do not affect the Celtics’s position in the Eastern Conference standings. To me, effort and demeanor has been the team’s biggest issue all year long; the talent is still obviously there.
It does seem as though we’ve gotten past a lot of the ridiculous off-court drama/bitch-ass-ness that was engulfing the team a few weeks ago, and it does seem as though they’re working together much better than before. (On Wednesday night, Kyrie was a wizard on the floor, making sick passes all over the court while trying to get the rest of the team involved early on in Philly. In fact, since March 1, he’s been averaging over eight assists per game, dishing out at least 10 dimes in 4-of-9 games this month.)
But again, effort is still lacking. After being a top-five defensive squad all year long, the team has dropped to sixth in terms of defensive rating. While that might not seem like a noteworthy change at all, it’s not a comforting trend when you consider they’ve given up an average of over 122 points per game (!!!) over their last five contests. They’re also 21st in the league in total rebounding, including being 20th in terms of offensive rebounding specifically. One of the first things I texted you while watching the game in Philly on Wednesday night was the fact that I was infuriated that the team refuses to even box out at times. I get that Embiid is really good. I get that we don’t really have anyone to match his size. But letting the guy get TWENTY-TWO boards on the night, including 16 on the defensive glass? That’s unacceptable.
DOM: All great points there. Defensively, we’ve actually been 16th in the league post-All-Star Break, and the team’s opponents’ points per game has really been driving me crazy. I often see people not knowing who to guard on fast breaks, losing their man on switches, and not closing out with their hands up. And that’s the difference in effort between winners and losers at the end of the year. Watching March Madness, you see it all over the place: teams who consistently lay out for loose balls, have their hands up and heads on a swivel, and play team defense usually come out on top.
I would also agree the competition in the East has gotten markedly better, especially at the top. The Bucks, Raptors, and 76ers are all legit championship threats, and Nate McMillan deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year with what the Pacers have been able to do after the Oladipo injury. However, of the Celtics biggest disappointments, the coaching of Brad Stevens has to be the biggest for me. A lot of people will point to Hayward and say for a guy making $30 million a year, he sucks! But his salary doesn’t matter. The dude had one of the most horrific injuries you can possibly have, and anyone who expected him to come back and be the same player he was before is a fucking moron. Now, I’m not saying I don’t want more out of him, but his scoring and shooting percentage have increased every month this season. If you want to talk about contract value, that’s a conversation for next season.
Brad should’ve won the Coach of the Year Award last year with all the juggling of minutes of reserves, getting the most out of his players, and managing injuries as good as I’ve ever seen. This year, it seems he’s worrying too much about the egos of guys like Hayward, Tatum, and Morris and not doing the things that made them so good late last year. Namely, keeping a rotation based on who’s hot rather than giving people a set number of minutes. Although he’s been better lately, I can point to a dozen losses from earlier in the year where he failed to call timeouts when the other team went on a run, especially late in the game. Obviously the players have to perform, but as a coach you need to be able to stem the tide and know if the levee is about to break.
MATTES: YES! Brad Stevens really isn’t getting enough flak for the poor job he’s done overall this year. I’ve always been a big fan of Stevens, ever since we first brought him on almost six years ago. Especially after last season, like you mentioned, I thought he was quickly ascending up the NBA coaching hierarchy and that we’d be set for years to come with him leading the way. But, like you also mentioned, the guy refuses to take timeouts when needed or make the tough calls, and he instead seems to be more worried about upsetting the big egos on this team. (Although, much like when he called out the team for taking shortcuts on defense after the game in Toronto a few weeks ago, he seems like he’s been finding his voice at least a little bit more lately.)
As I’ve said time and time again this year, though, there might simply be too many cooks in the kitchen. There are eight very talented guys who are averaging over 20 minutes a game for the Celtics this year, and that can’t be very easy to manage. Also, in regards to Hayward, the team plays incredibly well when he specifically plays well. (But no really, they’re almost unstoppable when Hayward is on his game.) So I don’t necessarily blame Brad for continuing to play him so much, even when he’s been outright bad at times.
But, it is now March 22, and the postseason is right around the corner. Brad needs to continuing tightening things up, shorten the rotation even more, and play the guys who are really making an effort to salvage this season. No more “figuring things out.” We’re 90% of the way through the season! Get it together, boys!
DOM: Totally agree. I’m not one of these dopes calling for Brad to be fired, and even if they were to get swept in the first round, I still want Stevens as our head coach, for now at least. He’s had five years in a row to prove himself, and one bad year isn’t enough for me to call it on him as a good coach. But you’re right, Brad needs to stick with the guys who are playing well, and hopefully these guys can start playing consistently as a unit. That’s the key to winning: team basketball, on both sides of the ball.
Here’s a stat that blew my mind, and although it’s not surprising if you’ve watched this team at all this year, it is frustrating. Aside from Kyrie and Horford, the Celtics suck in the ISO. There’s two guys in particular who need to cut the shit and stop clearing everyone out: Tatum and Morris. To give people an idea of how effective people can be out of the ISO, James Harden is the league leader, averaging 18 points per game in the ISO, and Steph Curry is the most efficient, scoring 1.1 points per possession in terms of people scoring more than one basket per game in ISO. (Technically, Rodions Kurucs is No. 1 at 1.75 PPP, but we’re not gonna count that).
The best players in the league hover around 1.0 PPP, but plenty of quality players keep it above 0.9. However, once you start dipping from there, you become increasingly ineffective. And that’s where Morris and Tatum come in. Morris is averaging 0.66 PPP and Tatum is at 0.64!! And it’s not like this is Draymond Green, who’s at 0.67 but is only in ISO 2.9% of the time. Tatum and Morris get the ball in ISO 13.4% and 9.8% of the time, respectively, and both only shoot 32% in those situations. Basically, that means that when Morris or Tatum go at it alone, they only make one of every three shots, good for two points every three trips up the court. That is GARBAGE.
Move the fucking basketball. Somehow, the Celtics actually average 26.4 assists per game, good for sixth in the NBA. But could you imagine if the ball didn’t seem to get stuck in someone’s hands so often? On the other side of it, Horford and Kyrie are both ridiculously efficient off the pick-and-roll, averaging well over 1.0 PPP each and shooting 50% or higher. That’s insane. Keep doing that.
MATTES: Well, it’s seems pretty obvious that we both feel that guys getting over themselves, learning to defer to those who deserve it, and actually acting like they care are three simple changes this team can make right now. If so, maybe – JUST MAYBE – a second straight push for the Finals isn’t such a crazy thought after all. If not, we might ultimately be looking at one of the more disappointing seasons for a Boston sports team that we’ve seen in quite some time.
The Celtics kick off their final slate of regular-season games on Saturday night in Charlotte.