The ever-tinkering Boston Celtics and the rocky road back to NBA Finals contention


The Celtics crowd is excited in the 4th.

The hometown Boston crowd was thrilled by the long 3-pointer by Jayson Tatum. (0:22)

7:21 AM

The ball swing from Dennis to Al Horford to Marcus Smart was trying to find the best shot.

The Boston Celtics were on the verge of an impressive win over the Los Angeles Lakers when they were up by 14 points with just over five minutes to go.

Smart drove baseline, sucked in two defenders, jumped and fired a pass back to a wide-open Tatum in the left corner directly in front of the Lakers bench.

The dagger 3 fell through the net as L.A. coach Frank Vogel was walking toward the referee to call timeout.

The play shows how things have changed for Boston since November, when a fourth-quarter collapse on their home court against the Chicago Bulls led to a players-only meeting the next day, followed by a call out of the team's two young stars, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Boston has won eight of its past 11 games and will face the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday at 7:30 pm at the Boston Garden. The program is on the network. Boston, 10-8, has posted the league's best defense over the last three months and is pushing back into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The Celtics are a clear favorite to reach the NBA Finals this season, but Brooklyn's arrival reminds them of where they stand in the East.

Boston spent several years living in that rarified air, both signing and trading for multiple All-Stars, in order to make three conference finals appearances in four seasons. The Celtics spent a lot of money trying to hang Banner 18 from the rafters.

The Celtics will have to do without the draft picks and assets they had available to them as they try to retool their roster around their All-Star wings.

The whole era for them hasn't really worked according to one league executive. "They're stuck in neutral, and maybe going backwards."

The Celtics lost to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East finals, but the future seemed more certain then.

Brown had averaged 19.7 points for the series, while Tatum had 17.9 points, including a dunk over James in the fourth quarter of that Game 7.

The fact that Boston did so with both Irving and Hayward watching in street clothes only made the belief that the East would tilt back toward the Celtics' favor even stronger.

The Celtics and James's Cleveland were in the East finals.

The Celtics entered the season with five players either present or future All-Stars: Irving, Brown, Tatum, Hayward and Horford, along with starting-caliber players in Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris Jr. The future picks from non-playoff teams were expected to net high draft picks or turn into trade options.

The franchise lost a lot of talent over the course of three years.

Horford, Irving and Morris left via free agency.

The 14th and 14th picks in the past two seasons have netted Boston a pair of reserve swingmen.

In the sign-and-trade deal, Rozier was sent to the Charlotte Hornets to get Kemba Walker, who was subsequently sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with a first-round pick for Horford.

The trade exception was created after the departure of Hayward.

Danny Ainge was replaced by Brad Stevens as president of basketball operations.

The result? Boston is short on both high-end talent and high-end assets to build around its young stars.

"You can't keep losing All-Star talent like Gordon, Kemba, and Horford," the Eastern Conference scout said. That adds up.

Out of Boston's past four drafts, only Robert Williams III appears to have the upside of a long-term starter. Grant Williams, a first-round pick, has spent time in and out of the rotation for Stevens and his replacement, coach Ime Udoka. Carsen was another high second-rounder.

The team's two-way slots, which have been turned into high-end rotation players such as Alex Caruso, Duncan Robinson and Luguentz Dort, have been wasted. Boston used theirs on guard Tremont Waters and center Tacko Fall for the past two seasons, neither of whom came close to becoming rotation players before being replaced this summer.

The Celtics have had a few really good players, but too many roster spots have been dedicated to players who aren't good enough.

Boston still has two players, even after all the roster and front-office turnover.

Seven teams had at least two All-Stars. The five that were top-four playoff seeds were from the same conference. The other two were the Lakers, who had James and Anthony Davis miss a combined 63 games, and the Celtics, who finished.500 in the East and were dismissed in the first round by Brooklyn.

A Western Conference scout said that Jaylen and Jayson weren't making anyone better. I put it on them.

The redness on Smart's face was visible through his mask.

"I would like to play basketball," Smart said after the Celtics had a 14-point lead over the Bulls, only to lose by that same margin.

Every team knows that we are trying to go to Jaylen, and every team is studying to stop them. I think everybody's scouting report is to make those guys try to pass the ball. They don't want to pass the ball.

They are learning and we're proud of their progress, but they need to find a way to create for others on the team.

On Wednesday, Nov. 24.

Nets at Celtics.

The 76ers are at the Warriors.

Friday, Dec. 3

The 76ers are playing the Hawks.

The Clippers are at the Lakers.

All times Eastern.

Smart's comments led to a players-only meeting the next day. Boston's eight wins in its 11 games since then have calmed things down, but they aren't new issues in Boston.

Smart yelled at his teammates in the locker room after the second game of the Eastern Conference finals. Before leaving for Charlotte last season, Hayward couldn't stay healthy and never regained his pre-injury form. There were a lot of issues on and off the court in Irving's final season in Boston.

"They've looked like players that don't enjoy each other's success, and it's been that way for years," the Eastern Conference executive said. It's not surprising that it's still rearing its head.

Smart's critique of the two men was merited. The Celtics have preached the importance of the duo as playmakers since training camp began. It hasn't happened so far.

Their assist numbers have fallen since last season, from 4.3 to 3.5 for Tatum and from 3.4 to 2.5 for Brown. Second Spectrum's player tracking data shows that both players have seen their potential assists drop, with Brown dropping from 5.4 to 4.7 and Tatum dropping from 8.1 to 7.6 per game. Brown has been out for half the season with injuries, while Tatum has drawn scrutiny from opposing teams.

If he does win, it is on his terms. He doesn't want to win. He wants to score 39 and win. An Eastern Conference assistant coach.

While attempting the third most in the league, and taking the seventh-highest percentage of contested 3-pointers this season, Tatum has been the least efficient player with at least 75 isolation plays.

The fifth-year wing's career-worst shooting percentages from the field and 3-point range are factors.

An Eastern Conference assistant coach said that Jayson Tatum is related to another person. I don't think he cares about winning now, and if he does, it's on his terms.

He doesn't want to score 15 and lose. He wants to score 39 and win.

Boston's recent play has the Celtics encouraged about where things are headed, especially after Brown returned to the lineup on Monday.

After the win over the Lakers, Smart said that they had some turmoil. It's just trying to figure out a way to get each other going. We're doing it and it's coming along. We still have a lot of work to do, but we're on the right path.

The Celtics have turned things around since their collapse against the Bulls.

In the short term, that path is dependent on Boston having an elite defense and just enough offense. That has worked to perfect lately.

The Boston Celtics have the NBA's best defensive rating and third-best net rating over the past three weeks, but they are still behind the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.

Udoka said that Boston's defensive improvement is a constant reminder that they can rely on. The defense gives us a chance every night.

Horford has been better than Walker so far this season and the Celtics have been able to balance out their roster because of it.

The process has been aided by the return of the form that made him a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Oklahoma City.

It's a formula that can allow Boston to reach its projected ceiling of being able to win a playoff series this season. Anything beyond that will need something more.

One path is to get a third star. The last Celtics title team featured a trio of stars.

The Eastern Conference scout said they probably need another guy. I love Al Horford, but he's getting older. I like Smart. Every guy is a question mark for me once you get past Brown and Tatum.

You normally need three stars to win.

It is difficult to find that star. The recent movement of players toward signing extensions has taken free agency off the table when it comes to acquiring a star player. The Warriors and Knicks are two teams that are better equipped to make a trade than the Boston Celtics.

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Another path for Boston is to have Brown and Tatum continue to grow. The Lakers won the NBA title in 2020 with James and Davis. The LA Clippers tried to do the same with a pair of elite wing players in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

While they can be seen in the same light as any of those four players, they have a long way to go.

The key to Boston's return to championship contention will be the ability of the two players to make other players better, according to a Western Conference scout. They have to make other players better if they can't get that third guy.

It won't be easy for the Celtics to return to championship contention. They are focused on trying to grow along the way.

"You expect to win every game you play, but that's not the case," he said. I think that's part of it. We're just trying to figure it out with a new coach and a new system.

I think it can help you in the long run, going through these bumps, as tough and frustrating as it can be. It brings you closer together.