There are concrete reasons why the Boston Celtics are struggling. Marcus Smart has been banged up and out of rhythm. Kemba Walker, brought in to be the team’s third star behind their two young wings, has lingering knee issues that seem like they’ll linger for the rest of his career. They haven’t found a big man they’re totally happy with, cycling dissatisfied through Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams, and the recently traded Daniel Theis. Their defense, perennially excellent since Brad Stevens showed up, has been just okay. They foul a lot and don’t get to the line enough themselves. There’s too much isolation junk in their offense. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can beat anybody off the dribble, but not so consistently that they should be trying to do it trip after trip. Jaylen in particular is a different and much better player than he was in his first couple of seasons, but you wish he would seek more of those slashing, catch-and-explode buckets he used to get when he was just a rook with a busted jumper. Make it easy on himself. That is the Celtics’ foremost if frustratingly unspecific problem: little of what they do looks easy.
I’m not pointing out anything the Celts don’t already know. In post-game pressers, Brad Stevens sounds uncharacteristically weary, because he’s repeating himself so much. “It’s just the same old story,” he said after a dismal loss to the Mavericks last week, “12-minute droughts because we don’t respond.” Boston doesn’t have an inexperienced team; all their relatively green players are role guys off the bench. The headliners know what to do; it’s in the doing it that they fail.
Some of this is fatigue, the kind that sets in as games progress and the kind the team is suffering collectively because their season isn’t going well. If you could pull Tatum aside for five minutes in the middle of an 8-0 run, you could make him understand that he shouldn’t be pounding the rock for 13 seconds and taking a contested pull-up the next three times down the floor, but you get tired and frustrated in the heat of contests that feel like they’re slipping away. You want very badly to just fix it, and when you’re as gifted as Jayson Tatum, sometimes you can. But not every time—or even most of the time, it appears, based on available evidence. So the Celtics are down six. Tatum from 26 feet, 18 feet, 24 feet. Clank, swish, clank. The defense comes apart. Now the margin is double-digits. A timeout that communicates a certain helplessness. Because what is Stevens going to tell the boys in the huddle that he didn’t tell them last night, and the night before?
Probably a lot of of things that feel cosmic aren’t real. You hear the choke click on some misanthropic god’s engine of doom and the actual problem is bad luck that will eventually even out, or something that you can control that you’re not handling right. Maybe you just kind of suck. This is different from being cursed. Blame a lack of ability, your own stubbornness, flaws in your shooting form. At any rate, it is something that’s screwing you up. There are no malignant imperceptible winds bending your jumper an inch wide of the mark.
And yet struggle perpetuates itself. It’s a psychological fact that breaking routines is difficult. Well, if it’s not working, why do you keep doing it? I’m stealing this from a friend’s therapist: comfort is not the same thing as joy. We’re victims of our own inertia. We do the things that we’ve been doing because we’ve been doing them. Perhaps this explains losing streaks, austerity politics, Jimmy Kimmel, Twitter, the days bleeding together into sleep interrupted by the desire to sleep. Anyway, anyway: the Celtics are in trouble, and if it’s not inescapable, its persistence does make it harder to escape, game over game, as the subpar performances pile up.
Do we take any hard and fast lessons from this season? Because some phenomena will continue as daily life becomes more like it used to be, and some are a product of our current unreality: the grief in the air, being stuck in hotel rooms on the road, an anomalously strenuous schedule. Everyone is a little or a lot more stressed out than they were circa January 2020. Surely some players are handling it better than others. Are the Celtics one of the more mentally worn down squads? What does that count for? At the moment, they’re 25-and-25 and seventh in the East. They could easily be ninth or fourth a few days from now. The short of it is that they are, as Stevens recently lamented, “very average.”
Each season is a process of becoming. Some good teams dominate wire to wire, others round into form as the playoffs approach. The main thing is that you get there by the time the elimination games arrive. Peak efficiency, or something like it. There’s technically still time—22 games—for the Celtics to shed what’s been weighing them down, but there’s a point at which your issues come to define you. You’re the squad that gets behind and stays there, that bogs down in the fourth quarter blows the lead. The Celtics are better than what they’re shown, of course they are, but maybe not this year. Everybody involved could use a month off, time away from the grind, which they’re not going to get until after they meet their demise, which at this rate might happen in the first round of the playoffs, or sooner.
In the meantime, all they can do is put in the work and hope that inspiration visits. A change. It’s up to them and it isn’t, which sounds hippy-dippy but is more or less how self-improvement works. Who genuinely feels in complete control of themselves even some of the time, let alone whenever they want to be?