After making three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics have had a disappointing 2021 season. They’ve had health issues, from injuries to COVID, and poor defense all around. While they’re related, there is still enough to showcase that being on the court hasn’t made most of them play with poise. I saw two main issues with the team: health and heart.
It’s no secret that injuries have plagued the Celtics this year. Many of their rotation players have missed significant time, such as Kemba Walker (29 games), Marcus Smart (24 games), and Tristan Thompson (18 games). Evan Fournier, who was acquired in a trade on March 25, only played 16 of the 28 games since he joined the roster.
The team has also been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 13 players spending a combined 167 days in quarantine this season; Fournier, Thompson, and Romeo Langford have spent the most time in health and safety protocols. Fournier and two-time All-Star Jayson Tatum have both detailed long-term effects of contracting coronavirus, with the latter admitting to using an inhaler for the first time in his life.
On top of this, Walker has been nursing and ramping up his knee after offseason surgery, Smart missed time due to a calf strain, and first-time All-Star Jaylen Brown’s season ended due to a torn ligament in his wrist. All of these issues have led to them playing 37 different starting lineups, negatively impacting their chemistry and performance. They ended the season with a 36-36 record, ranked 7th in the Eastern Conference, and stuck in the play-in tournament versus the Washington Wizards. Last year, they were 3rd in the East with a 48-24 record.
The Celtics have not played with much heart this season. Per Dunks and Threes, Boston ranked 11th in the league in offense and 15th in defense this season (adjusted for strength of opposing offenses faced). Last season, they were ranked 5th in both going into the Playoffs. While some of this can be blamed on the health issues and lineup inconsistencies, the available reserve players have also failed to step up to the plate, outside of rookies Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith.
Offensively, the Celtics ranked 10th this season in shooting at the rim, with a 63.1 eFG%. They also ranked 20th in mid-range shooting (40.4 eFG%) and 10th from beyond the arc (56.1 eFG%). Defensively, however, Tatum and the crew ranked 20th (61.6 eFG%), 10th (41.7 eFG%), and 22nd (56.1 eFG%), respectively, in those same shooting categories. Last year, they were ranked 8th, 7th, and 3rd.
The lack of defense this year, which had previously been a staple of the Celtics’ identity in the Brad Stevens era, contributed immensely to their .500 season. Without it, they’ve been a “talented” team that allows 40% of their opponents’ shots to be taken from deep. No one’s afraid to play them anymore, because they know they’re guaranteed to go off in shooting contests.
I’m not confident in this Celtics team making a deep playoff run. While I’m happy they showed up against the Wizards, they’ve been too inconsistent to be successful in my honest opinion. I foresee them having a first-round exit to the Nets, who swept the season series with 28-, 12-, and 5-point victories, respectively. While I think the Playoffs will be a clean sweep, I’ll be impressed if it’s a 4-1 series.