After nearly two months with the NBA’s best record, the Celtics have come crashing back to earth. Over their last 7 games, the Celtics are 3-4 with each game, even the wins, being uglier than the last. The Celtics lost to the Bulls by 23 points who, while they have been winning as of late, are still one of the NBA’s worst team. The C’s followed that up by barely beating the Nuggets by six without their two best players, Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, losing to the Jazz without Rudy Gobert, beating the reeling Mike Conley-less Grizzlies by nine, needing a miracle to beat the Pacers by one, losing to the Heat who were without their entire starting five, and losing to the Knicks on a night where Kristaps Porzingis shot 0-11. It’d be hard to find a more embarrassing string of games in Celtics history than that. After starting 22-4, the Celtics are struggling in what should be some of the easiest games on their schedule.
Surprisingly this new Celtics team that was supposed to struggle to start the season while they developed team chemistry and adjusted to being without Gordon Hayward actually played incredible to start the season and has gotten worse as time has gone on. The most surprising thing about their last seven games may be that despite his team’s struggles, Kyrie Irving is playing some of his best basketball of the season. Kyrie has scored 30+ points in 5 of the last 6 games and is starting to look like the player everyone expected him to be in his new role as the main scoring option in Boston, but without a true second scorer on the Celtics, they haven’t been able to keep up on the scoreboard against the dregs of the league. So what now? Are the Celtics just supposed to accept that this was the way they were supposed to look without Gordon Hayward? Are fans expected to accept that? The Celtics were once thought to be on their way to a 70 win season and are now losing to teams led by Kelly Olynyk and Michael Beasley. So what happened?
For one thing, the Celtics defense isn’t what it was at the beginning of the season. During their 16 game winning streak, only 3 teams scored 100 or more points on them, but in the 17 games since, the Celtics have given up 100 or more points 11 times. Teams are scoring 101.3 points per game against the Celtics in December, up 4.5 points from the start of the month and Kyrie’s defense has fallen off as well.
To start the season, Kyrie was playing defense like no one had ever seen him do before, but that level of defense hasn’t been apparent from Kyrie in recent games. Irving, who led the NBA in steals earlier this season, has just 4 steals in his last 9 games and the rest of the team is following suit. In December, the Celtics team blocks, steals, and turnovers forced are all down and it doesn’t stop there. The Celtics points, rebounds, and free throw attempts have also gone down this month.
So the Celtics are playing worse. You knew that. Why they are playing worse is the important part. Out of the 30 NBA teams, only 5 have played 33+ games this season. The Spurs, Cavs, and Jazz have played 33, one team, the Suns, have played 34, and the Celtics have played 35, the most in the NBA. Out of those 35 games, only two have been played on more than one day of rest. The problem with the Celtics is pretty clear: they’re tired. It’s hard not to look at fatigue as an excuse, but there’s some validity to it when you’ve played more games than any other team in your league. Everything from the Celtics minor and major injuries to their drop in energy on defense to their five less free throw attempts per game can be traced back to the fatigue of playing 35 games in 67 days. The reason why the Celtics have this scheduling problem is the frustrating part.
If you haven’t heard yet, the Celtics and 76ers will play in London on January 11th. The reason why this is affecting the Celtics schedule so much is because the NBA wanted to make sure there was no jet lag and the players were fresh for the games so the Celtics were given 4 days off before and after the game in London, creating chaos of the rest of their schedule. The 76ers will deal with similar problems in the second half of the season (sorry Sixers fans).
The big schedule news in the NBA in the offseason was that the season was going to be moved up two weeks to give players more time to rest in between games and reduce back to backs and three games in four nights. Unfortunately, the Celtics haven’t benefited from that like other teams have because so many of the off days they gained were used to give them extra rest before they go overseas to play in London.
Although no information was found on how the NBA chose who would play in London, it appears to have been voluntary on the Celtics part. Team president Rich Gotham said of the game “The Boston Celtics have enjoyed a loyal global following for decades, and we welcome the opportunity to connect again with our international fans… We’re happy to be returning to London to play our rivals the 76ers in front of London’s fans, and look forward to the exciting atmosphere at the O2.” The Celtics ownership can rarely be criticized, but if they chose to play in London they deserve a lot of the blame for the Celtics current struggles. The Celtics really could have used an extra 4 off days over the past month, but instead they’ll be used to hop on a plain and get acclimated to the London time difference. Ownership with the Celtics has been generally good and they appear to let Danny and Brad do their job without much interference, but this decision has had clear negative effects on the court this season. If the Celtics end up missing out on better seeding by a game or two, scheduling a game in London will be looked back on as a high mistake and ownership will have to take the blame for costing their team important games and possibly home court in the conference finals.
Photo: (Boston Herald)