Karalis: Immensely frustrating Celtics struggling to find maturity

Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics are like an old string of Christmas lights right now. The whole thing isn’t working, and we’re all sitting here trying to figure out which one of these bulbs is blown so we can replace it and string them up on the tree. And every time we think we find the problem, another one blows out, and the whole thing shuts down again. 

It is immensely frustrating, and each makes you want to throw the whole thing away and start over with something new. 

How is it possible that the Celtics are the league’s fourth-best second quarter team in terms of net rating (+11.6) yet the second-worst in the fourth quarter (-7.8)? The rotations to begin each half are the same. The Tatum + bench units are similar to start second and fourth quarters. Yet, what works earlier in the game fails miserably at the end. 

“It’s enough of a trend, enough of a concern. We’ve got to stop it,” Brad Stevens said after the loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. “Last year at this time we were in really good shape in those moments. This year we’re not. It has not been good.”

Teams have taken to sending two guys at Jayson Tatum at the end of games, a strategy they’re not going to waste early lest Tatum gets used to how it feels. Defenses have gotten creative with their attacks, with one defender trailing the play waiting for Tatum to spin and change direction and turn right into a trap. 

“I guess I’ve got to get it out a little quicker,” Tatum said. “And then when we did get it out, I thought we had quite a few times where we had some good looks with guys, on swing, swing, guys would be open for the three, guys rolling for layups. We just couldn’t hit some shots tonight.”

There is always going to be some make/miss element to a basketball game. There are some nights where you play everything right and the shots don’t fall. Sometimes a blackjack dealer draws five cards and gets 21. Playing the right way doesn’t always result in a win.

However, the Celtics aren’t always doing the basics right, either. The Celtics should be salivating at defenses that blitz Tatum because they should get to play a few seconds of 4-on-3 with Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown. Boston should win most of those possessions. 

One great way to beat an aggressive trap is to slip the screen, like Tristan Thompson did here. 

That was a rough miss for Daniel Theis, but it resulted in a great look. The problem with Boston right now is that they never really did things like this to make New Orleans pay for their strategy. They never switched from pick-and-rolls to dribble handoffs, where the big could have faked, watched two defenders go to Tatum, and then turned the corner for a layup attempt. They never got creative with their picks-and-rolls by making Tatum the pick-setter or Brown the pick-setter with Tatum and forcing the defense to decide whether leaving Brown alone was the better option. 

Maybe Stevens wanted Tatum and his guys to figure it out on their own, banking on the learning experience paying off later in the season. Maybe he didn’t want to tip a hand and give other teams film on how he might handle this defense down the line. Maybe he just flat-out made a mistake. 

There’s no doubt some practice time can help this. Tatum and Brown are young, up-and-coming stars looking to find their way to the next level. There is a delicate balance of hand-holding and mistake-making that will ultimately help enhance their games and let them, hopefully, grow into their full potential. The best place for an NBA coach to stop, teach, and engrain good habits into these young minds is on the practice floor and film sessions. 

But the Celtics don't have that, and so Stevens has a choice. He can be more hands-on in games and go back to a more college style of coaching, or he can demand that players learn to swim by throwing them into the deep end and hoping they can dog paddle their way to a railing. 

In many ways, we’re in the midst of some gruesome sausage-making. Brown is 24 and Tatum is close enough to 23 that his family is making birthday party plans. Neither is a finished product, and both are in some ways the NBA equivalent of an adolescent testing limits and boundaries. Their games, both individually and alongside each other, are still in the voice-cracking stage of growth. 

That means growing pains. And that means some harsh lessons along the way. 

“We’ve just got to mature and grow up,” Brown said. “That's one of the things that I've been trying to do, to look to get other guys involved. I think that's better for our team, but definitely gotta come out and find ways to win. We dropped the ball tonight.”

It’s hard to say if the Celtics will be better or worse for this experience. Frustrations could simply disappear with some time, some practice, and some communication. They could also turn into grudges and feuds. So often, the difference between one or the other is the result of some unintended consequence. 

The Celtics aren’t at a crossroads, but they can probably see one coming up on their GPS. The frustration of the moment has an equal chance of becoming the epicenter of something going wrong, or an amusing anecdote on the way to something good. 

It’s really up to these Celtics to figure that part out. Some kind of trade will probably happen this season, but before that, these players on this trip will have their own chances to get past some of these challenges. It’s going to be that, more than anything, that defines this team. 

If they can’t, then Mr. TPE probably won’t matter much. But if they can, then they might actually get to find out what their ceiling really is.