The Boston Celtics were down by as many as eight points to the nine-win Washington Wizards on Friday night. Just five games ago, they were down by 17 points against the New Orleans Pelicans at one point. Last Thursday, they lost to the LeBron James-less, Anthony Davis-less Los Angeles Lakers.
With the All-Star break right around the corner, the league-best Celtics may be thinking of Jamaica. They could be thinking of a trip back to Latvia. Or perhaps a warm, sunny trip to the beaches of Indiana. But there are still games to play.
Their defense in the first half against Washington on Friday was ugly. The Wizards scored 18 fastbreak points in the first quarter alone, and Boston only committed two turnovers.
Gone are the days of Celtics blowouts, and present are the hard-fought battles against each and every team – nine wins or 30 wins. This part of the season is a slog, and Boston will have to grind through it.
“It shouldn’t matter if we’re up five (or) down 10 to a team that has a good record or a bad record, that doesn’t matter,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said after Boston’s win over Washington. “What matters is, like, the process of how we play, I think. And so, we just can’t fall into those narratives that, ‘Well, this team has nine wins, so we should be up by 15 at the end of the game.’”
Every team in the league has the best talent in the world lining the roster, regardless of their place in the standings. Mazzulla’s day-to-day approach is relevant now more than ever as the Celtics face off against different levels of competition with just a few games left until their break.
“It’s a full journey in the season,” Jaylen Brown said after Boston’s win over Washington. “(There are) going to be highs and lows. There (are) going to be good games. There are going to be games where you got to figure it out. Shots are going to go in, shots are not going to go in. As a team, being able to stick together through it all is what’s important. And that’s what we’ve been doing.
“Every night is not going to always be perfect. We’re not gonna blow every team out every single night. But we still find ways to win. We still find ways to add to winning. And that’s important.”
It’s easy for fans to look at the lowly Wizards and assume the Celtics will beat them by 30 points. And on any given night, they could. Boston’s talent clearly outweighs Washington’s, but the games are actually played for a reason.
NBA games aren’t equivalent to 2K simulations. There is no magical button to press that automatically generates stats and a tally mark in the win or loss column. Real players play real games, and real outside emotions and actions come into play.
“There’s no way to ensure it. It’s going to happen again,” Mazzulla said of the Celtics playing poorly at times due to boredom. “But I think it’s the principle of having no expectations heading into the game. Just zero expectations. Just because we’re playing a team that has a record of whatever their record is doesn’t mean we should be up by a certain amount. I think it’s pretty arrogant to think that.”
The natural reaction to look at a team performing as poorly as the Wizards and expect an easy victory is obvious. Fans see it and point it out, and while players should treat every game the same (as Mazzulla has preached), they are bound to have a similar reaction.
It’s the expectations that spawn from said reactions that begin to get in the way of success.
“When people’s expectations aren’t met, that, to me, is where there’s more slippage,” said Mazzulla. “Because it’s like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this didn’t go how I thought it was going to go.’ Whereas if we can eliminate those expectations and just play, I thought you saw a significant shift in our team when we cut it to 74-72. Like, we can’t always play the game as if it’s supposed to go the way we think it’s supposed to go.”
In an 82-game season, boredom and fatigue are going to play a role. It’s the Celtics’ job to find ways around those obstacles.
“I mean, it’s human nature,” Mazzulla said. “I’m assuming that like, yeah. I’m sure they’re not waking up every day saying, ‘I can’t wait to attack every single second of every day.’ So, I’m sure they go through small moments of that. But I think, as a whole, our team mindset has to be, we got to earn the win, regardless of who we’re playing.”
Rather than looking at the Wizards game and being frustrated at the way they won, the Celtics continue to look at close games as a positive. Blowouts may be preferred by fans, but there is no lesson to learn in a whomping.
“We got to work on a situation today that we simulated in shootaround,” said Mazzulla. “Like, to me, I’d rather have that than have a blowout because we walked through two situations, and they both happened in the exact game, and we got them both down pat. So, I want as many close games as possible.”
Boston’s shots weren’t falling in the first half, and the Wizards took advantage. They sprinted in transition, outworked Boston, and, in turn, splashed some water on the face of the Celtics.
By the third quarter, TD Garden was awake again. The Celtics found their footing and learned from their first-half missteps and predetermined assumptions.
“Getting away from having an expectation that the game is gonna go a certain way, and more just kind of thriving and building awareness to be in exactly where we’re at, and just working through it. I thought I saw most of that in the third quarter,” said Mazzulla.
The Celtics outscored the Wizards 36-16 in the third quarter. It was the only quarter Boston won, but it was enough to get the job done.
“I think tonight was good, right? Continue to find ways to win,” said Jayson Tatum. “Maybe we don’t shoot the ball as well as we want to in the first half, or things aren’t going our way, and it feels a lot worse than it is. And we look up, we’re only down two in the third quarter.”
On past Celtics teams, tensions may have begun to build following an ugly first half. The offense would have collapsed into hero ball, and the defense would have been affected by poot offensive results. But not this year.
Instead, Tatum attacked to the rim and made plays with ease, Brown picked his spots while taking limited shots, and Kristaps Porzingis dominated mismatches in the post. Everyone on the Celtics did exactly what they needed to in the third, and it’s why Boston squeaked out a win.
Well, that and Mazzulla’s jokes.
“I told a couple of jokes in the third quarter,” Mazzulla revealed, declining to share them because they were “pretty inappropriate.”
Tatum said they helped “lighten up the moment” and allowed the Celtics to play a bit more freely.
“I told one joke, and he told a joke,” Tatum said. “His wasn’t that funny.”