These Celtics are a hard watch.
Obviously, this isn’t about the winning. They’re 15-5 with room to grow. It would be disingenuous to argue against a style that has vaulted them to the top of the NBA.
This isn’t about the (occasional) losing either. They’re out of the In-Season Tournament after 15 turnovers and 12-of-21 from behind the arc buried them against the Pacers on Monday night. There’s no point in overanalyzing what is likely a blip in their regular season schedule; it was ugly, but an anomaly. For the most part, they’ve been a dominant defensive team with a bad shooting night tripping them up.
No, it’s an aesthetic thing.
Mirrors and numbers don’t lie. Boston is 25th in assists per game and 14th in turnovers. They’re second in three-point attempts, but are just 16th in 3FG%. Those numbers track. Much of their offensive strategy has been predicated on attacking mismatches, hence the low assists numbers. Mazzulla Math has put an emphasis on a high volume of 3s and Brad Steven’s doubled down on it acquiring Kristaps Porzingis and maintaining a second unit made up primarily of shooters.
So, when they’re not spamming favorable matchups, they’re finding shooters in their five-out spread offense. And to this beholder, this brand of basketball burns the eye.
Sure, there’s a violent beauty to Jaylen’s rim attacks in semi-transition. I can admire the careful craftsmanship of Tatum’s back-to-the-basket repertoire.
But it’s not the game I love — at least not in its finest form. To me, basketball is a team game.
And sure, there’s a tactical artistry to how Joe Mazzulla leverages strengths against weaknesses like a boxer in a twelve round fight, but give me the ingenuity of a Brad Stevens’ ATO in those Hospital Celtics years to tickle my fancy. We are living in a comic book world with comic book heroes saving the day. I grew up on the A-Team and MacGyver and Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13.
We’ll see the beautiful game from time to time, most noticeably when they draw up a play for Sam Hauser. A series of screens will click together like an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine only for the ball to fall into the feathery hands of Hauser, its flight path to the rim divined by the basketball gods and not the product of hours in the gym last summer. There’s a magic to it.
So, maybe that’s it. With Boston’s bully ball style, it’s eliminated the wonder of how a sum can possibly be greater than its parts and been replaced by the simple fact that a player is faster or stronger (or both) than his defender.
It’s no coincidence that some of this angst has bubbled up in the absence of Porzingis. While the Unicorn may represent the biggest mismatch advantage the Celtics have, there’s a grace and mystery with which he plays the game. A guy that big shouldn’t be able to shoot so fluidly from outside, but he does. Big men shouldn’t be able to Eurostep around defenders, but this Euro does. He’s become the perfect release valve for the Jays, balancing their aggressive forcefulness with his seemingly effortless artistry.
Maybe a part of me is just worried that they won’t be able to outmuscle everybody, especially the contenders. The losses to Philly, Minny, and Mickey have shown us that. But mostly, as a consumer of 100-plus games a year, the first twenty games have been a hard watch.