The Celtics’ recent three-game losing streak once again highlighted a confounding problem for one of the NBA’s most talented rosters. The Eastern Conference’s preseason favorites find themselves seven games behind the Raptors in the race for a top playoff seed.
In theory, the 2018-2019 season should’ve proved an easier time for Boston than a year ago, when they lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. With the departure of LeBron James to Los Angeles and the Western Conference, and the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward (neither of whom played in the Celtics’ playoff run), it seemed that Brad Stevens’s team was poised to take the next step.
Yet the stop-start nature of the team’s season to this point has recently taken form in a series of comments from Celtics players. It’s seen as a possible sign of tension in the locker room. NBA insiders have also weighed in on the current situation.
“There seems to be a reasonably sized divide between the veterans in the room and the young players about how this team is playing and maybe who should be playing,” said Sports Illsutrated’s Chris Mannix.
Explaining why such a capable group of players haven’t hit their stride can be difficult. In many ways, the Celtics’ public comments have revolved around the team’s highest profile player.
The 26-year-old has assumed a large part of the team’s leadership role, and spoke up after a recent loss to the Magic.
Here’s what Irving told The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach when asked why the season has been up and down:
The best thing I can say is experience. We’re lacking it, and because of that we have a lot of learning to do. So we have a lot of ground to make up in that aspect. It gets tough. When it gets hard, you’ve got to think. You’ve got to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play. You’ve got to be able to play the full 48 minutes, no matter what’s going on, and hold your head high when you make mistakes.
You’ve got to come in and make an impact for the minutes that you’re playing out there. You’ve got to appreciate being out there and just competing. It doesn’t matter who you’re going against. It matters the type of preparation you have, what you’re going out and trying to accomplish. What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are things I don’t think some of my teammates have faced just every single day. It’s not easy to be great.
Two days later, Irving appeared to regret the full extent of what he’d publicly said, vowing “never to question my teammates in public like that ever again.” The reasoning for the comments, Irving added, was that “I just want to win so bad.”
Irving’s criticism of younger players has drawn negative comparisons to his previous experience in Cleveland.
“Frankly, it strikes me as a little hypocritical of Kyrie to be this guy,” said Sports Illustrated’s Rohan Nadkarni.
“For him to come off and be like, ‘Let me teach you guys how to do…’ When has Kyrie lead a team without LeBron James to those heights?” Nadkarni asked. “This is the kind of stuff he complained about in Cleveland, is it not? He didn’t like being paternalized the way LeBron did and now he’s doing the same thing. It just strikes me for an absurd thing for Kyrie Irving of all people to say, frankly.”
A year ago, with the Celtics’ season seemingly crippled by injuries, Brown stepped up on both sides of the floor as the former third pick in the draft continued to mature. This season, he’s undeniably regressed, ranking in the lower half of the league’s Real Plus-Minus ratings. The tough part, as Brown explained it in December, has been his diminished role with the return of the Irving and Hayward.
“It’s probably been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with so far in my career,” Brown told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. “Just coming from a position where you had so much responsibility, and now that responsibility is lessened. Expectations have been raised, but your responsibility goes down, so it’s hard to reach those expectations when you aren’t being asked to do as much.”
After the loss to the Nets, he offered comments that suggested a difference of opinion with Irving.
“We’ve got to be more accountable as a group,” Brown told reporters. “It’s not one guy’s fault. It’s not young guys’, old guys’ fault. It’s everybody. We all have to be accountable to turn this thing around.”
“We’ve just got to have each other’s backs at the end of the day,” Brown continued. “We can’t make comments; we can’t point fingers. We just have to continue to empower each other and have each other’s backs. If we don’t, if we start pointing fingers, everybody’s going to go into their own little shells.”
And his final comment appeared to be directed at team leadership.
“It starts from the top to the bottom. Not from the bottom to the top, but the top to the bottom.”
These comments, while not definitively pointed at Irving, are possible proof of unease among players.
“Maybe Brown was truly just speaking in generalities,” wrote Himmelsbach.”It’s also possible that his buzzwords about empowerment and starting at the top and having each other’s backs were simply repackaged from a message the team had received as a whole, from someone like Stevens. But at this point, it cannot be counted out that there is tension brewing.”
Like Brown, Rozier was directly affected by the return of an injured player. Rozier, who made a name for himself in the playoffs last season in Irving’s absence, has grappled with his own frustrations in a bench role. He recently voiced his general astonishment at the layout of the team’s remarkable roster.
“I don’t think we’ve all been on a team like this,” Rozier told Yahoo Sports. “Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it’s a lot with it.”
The 24-year-old gave a fascinating quote to Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill when asked if the team somehow had an overabundance of ability.
“Too much talent, year,” Rozier concurred. “Too much talent.”
Still, Rozier agreed with Irving’s assessment.
“Kyrie said a lot after the last game and it was probably stuff that people didn’t want to hear,” he said. “But it’s showing.”
He wasn’t the only Celtic who concurred.
In the loss to the Magic (the aftermath of which provided Irving’s quote about “experience,”) Tatum was selected to take the final shot. The second-year forward has continued to develop on both sides of the floor, though he missed a tough shot at the buzzer.
Cameras appeared to show Irving disagreeing with Stevens’s play.
Another look at Kyrie in the huddle before Celtics' last shot.
Irving appeared to disagree with Brad Stevens' call… pic.twitter.com/GZfi6xewjD
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 13, 2019
Yet Tatum backed Irving’s comments.
“It’s the truth,” Tatum said. “He knows what it takes to win a championship and most of us don’t. Sometimes you have to be brutally honest in this profession to get the best out of one another. It came from a good place.”
Morris’s heated exchange with Brown during a timeout during the game in Miami happened potentially because of the latter’s lack of effort on defense.
You can see 7:12 on the clock. This was during a second-quarter stoppage. At 8:01 you can see Morris get visibly upset after Brown is late getting back on defense. Seems tempers flared at the next stoppage. https://t.co/GIwKshTWJy
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) January 11, 2019
Morris downplayed the incident afterward.
“We moved past it after the timeout,” Morris said. “I know everybody wants to catch everything on camera, but you didn’t catch the stuff that happens afterwards, when we sat right beside each other and it was over.”
Following the team’s third loss in a row, Morris was more critical of the team overall.
“It’s tough to win four straight and lose three straight,” Morris explained. “I would be lying if I said we knew our identity because the identity of a good team don’t do that.”
“We can’t go from being very consistent to not being consistent at all,” Morris reasoned. “That’s not a trait of a good team.”