28th May 2018.
The Boston Celtics had just pushed LeBron James to the very edge, only to come up short in the Eastern Conference Finals. On the way, the Celtics, led by rookie Jayson Tatum, had worked their way through the East defeating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, as well as Joel Embiid and the 76ers. Coming out of that game 7 against Cleveland, things looked up for Boston. The sky was the limit for this team made up of young talent, led by Brad Stevens. The Celtics, seemingly, were on the edge of greatness.
Then it all came crumbling down.
The Celtics finished the regular season 49-33. Only one game ahead of the Oladipo-less Pacers. A far cry from the 67 wins many a sports analyst projected for them. Not only did the Celtics perform badly on the court, their season was also muddled with off-court drama led by their supposed superstar Kyrie Irving.
Throughout the regular season, Irving kept igniting the flames of dysfunction by drawing attention to his teams “lack of experience”, even though they almost reached the NBA Finals without him. Irving was quoted after storming off the court after a loss to the Magic “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team.”
After a series of controversial quotes, Kyrie seemingly made up with his team and put the drama to bed after a strange incident involving Irving calling LeBron James and apologising. Kyrie, for the most part, kept his mouth shut and the Celtics headed into the playoffs as a 4 seed.
After dispatching the mediocre Pacers 4-0, the Celtics are currently matched-up with Giannis’ Milwaukee Bucks and are down 3-1 after three consecutive blowout loses.
What’s gone wrong?
The free-flowing, unselfish, Celtics from last season have evaporated. The Celtics now play a slower, more ISO-focused type of basketball which does not suit the talent they have.
Every player, except for Al Horford, has regressed. Jayson Tatum embodies the decline of the Celtics the best. After exploding onto the scene last season, the sophomore small-forward has regressed. Tatum seems far less aggressive in his play style, refusing to go to the rack and assert his dominance. Instead, Tatum has resorted to taking 15, 20-foot jump-shots in order to impersonate Kobe Bryant after the two reportedly worked together in the offseason.
In Tatum’s attempt to resemble Kobe, he’s coming across a lot more like 2018 Carmelo Anthony instead.
Gordon Hayward‘s struggles continue. However, Hayward does get a pass after coming back from a horrific injury sustained in game 1 of the 2017/18 season. Hayward has shown flashes of his former self, but playing back to his previous level will take some more time.
Heroes of that 2018 play-off run – Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris – have not made a big enough impact after showing so much promise that season. The role players regression is wrapped up in the failures of Stevens.
Stevens’ biggest failure this season has not been on the court, although that has been bad too, it has been in the locker room. A young coach with little experience dealing with big NBA personalities, it is easy to see how Stevens has been overrun and swallowed up by his own players. Do you think Gregg Popovich would let Kyrie Irving act the way he has this season?
The Eastern Conference Semi-Finals are serving as a microcosm for all the Celtics troubles this season.
In game 1, the Celtics won comfortably, showing the potential they have. But, from then on, the Bucks, led by Giannis, have steamrolled the Celtics, demolishing them in the second-half of each game. Every time the Celtics go down ten points, it grows to fifteen and then twenty and before you know it the Bucks are up twenty-five points in four minutes. This problem is indicative of the Celtics mental attitude. As soon as the Bucks go up, the Celtics’ heads drop. When the supposed leader of your team has been sending sly jabs at you all season through the media, and is also shooting 4-18, 8-22 and 7-22, it’s hard to beat the unstoppable Giannis juggernaut.
The Celtics season is on the verge of collapse, or maybe it has already and we’re currently in the post-mortem phase.
Watching the Celtics this season has been miserable for many a Boston sports fan. However, there is hope for the future. Irving will most likely leave during the summer, if the people of Boston do not kick him out, and that will free up cap space and offer a whole lot less of drama and distractions for this young Celtics team. Maybe in Irving’s absence Tatum, Brown, Hayward and Stevens can thrive playing unselfish, free-flowing, collective basketball. But the story of the 2018-19 Boston Celtics has been one of disappointment, apathy and, in the words of Kyrie Irving when asked about his shooting %, a whole lotta “who cares?”