Battling for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics laid an absolute egg against the Miami Heat Sunday afternoon.
Boston fell behind 79-53 at the half with an absolutely disastrous defensive performance against its conference rivals. While the Celtics ended up making it a game in the second half, the end result was their sixth loss in their past nine outings.
“I won’t get into the specifics, but our defense isn’t as good as it has been in the past,” Stevens said after the game. “We’re slow to react to the ball moving and we’re not quite on a string the way a small team needs to be.”
Missing star wing Jaylen Brown due to an ankle injury for a third consecutive game is not an excuse. Seeing big man Robert Williams leave at halftime due to a turf toe injury is not an excuse.
One season after making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics sit at 35-33 on the campaign and as the seventh seed in the conference. If the season were to end today, Boston would be forced into a play-in matchup with an ascending Charlotte Hornets team. This is not the way general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics envisioned things going in 2020-21. And it has Brad Stevens firmly on the hot seat.
Boasting a 353-279 record, Stevens has been one of the Celtics’ best coaches in modern history. But unlike his counterparts, the respected basketball mind has not led the storied franchise to a championship. In fact, Boston’s performance in the playoffs under Stevens has left a lot to be desired.
Consecutive defeats at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals is one thing. But once King James moved on to Southern California following the 2017-18 season, most figured these Celtics were primed to take the East by storm.
Instead, we’ve seen major regression on the part of Stevens’ club. If you’re not maintaining your status as a top-end contender or getting better, any other trajectory can’t be seen as good for your job security.
Since joining the Celtics’ front office back in 2003, Ainge has been somewhat of an institution in Boston. The former point guard took over what seemed to be a fledgling ship. Within a few years, he had the Celtics back on top as the NBA champions after acquiring stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
This has obviously given Ainge some sense of job security. With that, the executive has always been a proponent of looking to the future. In the past, this had included opting against offering the likes of Jaylen Brown and/or Jayson Tatum in trades for Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis.
In retrospect, this has proven to be fruitful for the Celtics. Both Brown and Tatum have morphed into stars. There’s also no telling whether Leonard or Davis would have remained in Boston over the long-term.
Nevertheless, other player personnel decisions Ainge has made in the recent past should have him on the hot seat. No one will blame him for signing Gordon Hayward to a max contract ahead of the 2016-17 season. No one could predict the serious injury Hayward would suffer one game into his Celtics tenure.
Even then, the signing of Kemba Walker during the 2019 offseason and recent acquisition of Evan Fournier ahead of the March NBA trade deadline can be questioned. Walker has been a shell of his former self in Boston. Meanwhile, Ainge opted to use the huge Hayward trade exception to bring in an impending free agent in Fournier who has not moved the needle too much. Ainge could have waited until the offseason to add a true third star with Brown and Tatum. Alas, Ainge is always weary about giving up real assets to improve his roster.
These moves have proven to be failures. However, there’s no real reason to believe that they will have Ainge on the hot seat any time soon. Hence, Stevens is potentially his fall guy.
It’s not looking great. Even if Boston were to make it out of the play-in tournament as the seventh seed, it would be forced to go up against either the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the NBA playoffs. To say that the Celtics have struggled against top-end Eastern Conference competition this season would be an understatement.
Obviously, the best matchup here for Boston would be Milwaukee. However, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that this iteration of the Celtics can compete with Giannis and Co.
That’s the crux of the issue. Short of Boston somehow turning things around and making a deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Stevens tenure will likely come to an end after eight otherwise successful seasons.