Going into the fourth quarter of Monday night’s contest against the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics led by 14 points. Twelve basketball minutes later, Boston lost by that same amount, after giving up 38 points in the final period while only producing 11, with zero defensive rebounds along the way. While the meltdown was literally unprecedented in the shot-clock era, it wasn’t entirely surprising to those who have been focused on the Celtics, now 2-5 and ailing from systemic lack. Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and (the healthy version of) Isaiah Thomas are all guys they could use right now.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, throughout their short but immediately impactful careers, have always had playmakers and table-setters like those savvy fellows to work off of, and now they simply don’t. Boston brought in Dennis Schroder to eat a bunch of point guard minutes, but Schroder-ologists have known for years that his ideal role is as a Sixth Man microwave combo guard; the cherry on top, not the protein at bottom. Marcus Smart hasn’t been a point man since college, and how much can you really expect from a 35-year-old Al Horford running an offense from the elbow or perimeter?
Horford is stretched beyond his current capabilities in this role, and also past his capacities as a beef man on the boards; the Celtics rely almost exclusively on the chronically injured Robert Williams for ballast at the rim, unless they decide to incorporate Enes Kanter, who has averaged just five minutes per game so far this season. (Given his singular ability to tank the Portland Trail Blazers’ defense last year, I wouldn’t count on much of an increase on that figure unless an emergency forces the occasion).
At the center of this talent crater are Brown and Tatum, two lethal wingmen who make the Celtics look like a title contender when they’re both nailing tough pull-up threes—which happens more often than logic dictates it should. But when they’re not? Smart is talking to reporters about how the team has no offensive structure to fall back on, inevitably inviting a media storm about personnel mix-up questions as the season trudges on without much of a solution in sight.
The aforementioned Blazers, too, stand at a certain crossroads. Damian Lillard has had one of the worst stretches of his career to start the season, shooting just 35 percent from the field, with a 23 percent mark from beyond the arc. To say that he looks bad at the moment might be putting it generously. Portland is, to be sure, trying to implement more of an actual offense in place of the Watch Dame Cook system that has carried them through the past few seasons, so there is much to iron out, and in the coming weeks we could very well see a quick aggression to the mean for Lillard’s scoring efficiency. There is perhaps more of an answer here than in Boston, and that answer is: Lillard not completely sucking as a volume scorer, since, historically speaking, he has always done the exact opposite.
But for the 3-4 Blazers, who most recently lost to the Philadelphia 76ers sans Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons, Lillard’s cold spell comes at an unfortunate moment. There is a readymade context for loud rumors about their star guard wanting out, with leaks of varying credibility having trailed him all summer long. During their loss in Philadelphia, the Sixers’ home crowd chanted “We Want Lillard,” as they beat him with their B-squad; an irony that tells us something odd about sports fandom, something we might need a few weeks to define, but certainly it has something to do with the unique mix of longing and chauvinism specific to Sixers fans.
Lillard is averaging just 3.9 free throws per game, though, which is a figure he hasn’t been down at since his rookie season. There are real questions to ask about how much shooting space he was previously able to create by utilizing the threat of the four-point play, and whether that space will return to him as the NBA presumably continues to crack down on its most severe foul-baiting superstars. Last year, Lillard was so good at hitting threes while tricking defender’s bodies into a position that he could lean into, for a free throw on top, that it created a Western Conference standings mirage—despite hovering around a neutral point-differential for much of the year, Portland stayed high enough in the West to avoid a play-in threat in the playoffs seeding war. Lillard during crunch time (“Dame Time,” as the most eagerly sentimental of us are want to call it) was the special ingredient in this unlikely result, and until we see him consistently find that moment in the new NBA—or until league officials potentially regress to their old fame-favoritism and loophole waxing—the Blazers remain in need of identity.
As we know from even smaller sample sizes than the several-game versions we work with right now, it’s too early to plaster red flags all over both of these teams just yet. Especially given the recent, sustained success of both. Last season, the Dallas Mavericks started the season five games under .500 through a substantially larger portion of the season, yet ended the year at 42-30. A lot can change in a hurry, and even more can alter over a longer period of time.
But both the Blazers and Celtics brought in new coaches to address questions that we may see to be more existential and personnel-based than strategic or cultural. Sometimes you’re just putting a new face on the same disappointment, and sometimes that disappointment ossifies, and then morphs into something worse. We are several years deep into particular sub-championship trajectories for both of these franchises, and arriving at the point where fans and analysts and even the players themselves start to wonder how much goodness can be tolerated while falling short of the threshold of greatness.