Following their incredible second-half surge where they won 26 of their final 32 games, the Boston Celtics finished the 2021–22 season with an NBA Finals berth and two wins away from the prized Larry O’Brien trophy. The Celtics continued their dominance into 2023, where they led the league for most of the season. However, they are currently in a short slump, losing four out of their last six contests. While many Celtics fans hit the panic button immediately following a tough loss, there wasn’t much need for hysteria — until now. Following their brutal overtime defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night, stress is building in Boston.
Although the Celtics were missing Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III against Cleveland, they still held a 14-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Even with a questionable foul call on Donovan Mitchell with five seconds remaining, Grant Williams couldn’t sink two crucial free throws and the Celtics eventually fell in overtime. Some could chalk up the defeat to fatigue due to their double overtime barnburner against the New York Knicks the night prior; however, the Celtics’ trademark grit has vanished over this horrific stretch. This isn’t an anomaly in today’s NBA; with the increased parity across the league, even the juggernauts eventually hit a rut. But the Celtics blowing major leads late in games is concerning, especially if they expect another deep playoff run.
Following the defeat to Cleveland, head coach Joe Mazzulla essentially chalked up the recent struggles to “empty possessions on offense” in an interview with SB Nation. While much of this is true — missing uncontested layups is a sin in professional basketball — the current Celtics’ defense is wet computer paper. As good of a player as Immanuel Quickley is, it’s unacceptable that he’s able to drop 38 points in TD Garden. While being fourth in defensive rating is nothing to scoff at, their current mark is almost 5 points higher than last season’s 106.2 rating. Marcus Smart, reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has seen a considerable drop in defensive production, and having Robert Williams III on the injury shelf doesn’t help either.
While their horrid rebounding will bounce back once Horford and RWIII return to the lineup, the Celtics must determine the main cause of their second half breakdowns. If that’s simply a poor mentality, Celtics fans should be worried. With Tatum already battling a horrible mindset in games against the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics’ lack of toughness will come back to bite them come April and May. Sure, the stalling offense and rebounds can be fixed by solid coaching and confidence, but grit cannot be taught. I still have faith in this team to create magic in the playoffs, but with the Milwaukee Bucks playing out of their minds currently, I wouldn’t buy those NBA Finals tickets just yet.