The Boston Celtics Remain Consistently Inconsistent

The Celtics have played pretty well since I declared them “bad”. So of course I take all the credit. Seriously though, it’s going to take a larger sample size of “good” basketball for me to get off that not-so-hot-take rating of this team. It just comes down to consistency, because the Celtics haven’t proven they have it.

There is a strong sense of “two steps forward, two steps back” that has been carried over from last year. I’m a very big fan of most of the individual players on this roster, but somehow (so far) the sum of the parts is not greater than the whole. With so much talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball, the team should be performing better. And to be fair, there is still a lot of season left and plenty of time for them to do that. My only hope is that this article will be looked back and laughed at by many of you (I could imagine a more productive hobby, but hey, you do).

All warnings (some call them apologies) apply here: head coach novice, COVID, injuries, etc. If we are generous we can apply a brand new 20 game rule and see how this team fares by the middle of December (if counting the last 3 positive games). Again, nothing would make me happier than to see things change, and I truly believe it can. What worries me are the historical trends.

If you’re looking for a reason why a team is inconsistent, you often have to start at the top with their best players. Because as great as Jayson Tatum has proven himself, he’s also been very streaky. He starts seasons slow and has pauses in his game (probably linked to normal shooting slumps that have more of an impact on jump shooters). What’s even more concerning is how his breakdowns affect the rest of his game. At his worst, he complains to the umpires, gets lost in defense, settles for jumpers, and (yes, Marcus) doesn’t distribute the ball enough. He’s working on those things and I’m very confident he’ll turn it around, partly because he’s done that before. The positives far outweigh the negatives, but if he wants to join the MVP discussion, he’ll have to become more consistent and find a way to play through the shooting slumps by contributing elsewhere.

Boston Celtics - New York Knicks

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To his credit, Jaylen Brown has been more consistent than Tatum this year, but even he has had “baffling” nights early on. I don’t know if that’s the new system, or postpone it to Tatum or if he’s just in his own head. Ideally when Tatum is out, that’s when you really need Brown to step up and vice versa. A few times this year they’ve both been off at the same time and there’s not much else you can do at that point. Missing more time now with another injury doesn’t help either.

Then there’s Marcus Smart, the “heart and soul” of this team. And therein lies the pinch. If your heart and soul is someone whose core personality is fleeting, that can be a problem. Sure, the positives far outweigh the negatives with Marcus. I am a big fan. But even his biggest fans have to admit that he swings wildly from “winning plays” to “what the hell just happened?” He’s like a photo negative of Russell Westbrook, doing most of his disruptive damage to the defense, but which team he’s damaging changes from night to night and sometimes quarter to quarter.

Those are your top three players and they set the tone for everyone else. But the “everyone” here hasn’t really helped either. Neither Dennis Schröder or Josh Richardson are known for their consistency over the years. The younger guys on the team are still quite new to the league and by definition will not be consistent. Ironically, where the team has gotten the most consistency is the double-bigs (which everyone was worried about in preseason). Somehow Horford has looked like he’s 5 years younger and Robert Williams has played like he’s 5 years older.

At the end of the day everything would look a lot better if the majority of these guys put in a more consistent effort in defense. Defense covers a large number of sins and gives you a chance in any given game. And that’s why, despite everything I’ve written above, I’m still optimistic about this group. The pieces are in place for a top defensive team. There has been plenty of time for Ime’s system to settle and evolve. Of course, other teams will have hot and cold shooting nights and there’s only so much you can do about that. But if the Celtics turn to defensive efforts night after night, they can survive Tatum’s shootings, Brown’s injuries, and Smart’s brain spasms.

Let’s see if they can do that in the coming weeks. They have a chance to continue with good momentum. They don’t have to be perfect, there will be losses that you have to live with. They just have to come to work every night and stay locked up for the entire game and good things will come.

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