Can the Boston Celtics find an identity in time to save their season?

What do you see when you watch these Boston Celtics? If you stare at them long enough they’re likely to morph into something completely different. 

The 2021 Boston Celtics are a Rorschach test. Watch them play. What do you see? A dark horse, scarred but still standing, the proverbial grizzled team nobody wants to face? A sunset, retiring a long day that could have been so much brighter? The Celtics have won eight of 10 heading into games against Phoenix and at Brooklyn. Their lack of definition could forewarn a lost season. Or it could be what saves it.

Boston has been one of the league’s better teams for a while. They’ve reached the conference finals three of the past four years. Their recent run of play suggests a team that’s finally clicking; the Celtics have been as impacted by Covid as almost any other team, so that would make sense. But a dive into those wins leaves much to be desired.

Entering April, the Celtics were 7-14 against teams currently two or more games over .500. They’ve padded that mark a bit during the current win streak, with wins over the Nuggets a week after they lost Jamal Murray and the Lakers sans LeBron James and Anthony Davis. You can only play the teams on your schedule; the Celtics owe no apologies to Denver or Los Angeles. But they don’t have many more chances to prove they’re big-game hunters. After their set with the Suns and Nets, only four of their final dozen games are against teams two or more games over .500: the Trail Blazers, two with the Heat and the season finale at New York.

Why haven’t the Boston Celtics been able to find an identity this season?

Why the struggles this year? Don’t blame Jayson Tatum. The fourth-year star has had health struggles due to Covid, but he’s still putting up a career-high 26 points per game while making nearly 40 percent of his 3s. Ditto Jaylen Brown, averaging nearly 25 points on career-best shooting from the field and from deep. Marcus Smart remains Marcus Smart, but he missed 20 games this year, though even that doesn’t explain the volatility — the Celtics were up and down while Smart was active, plus they won four in a row just before he returned.

Kemba Walker has struggled since returning from knee surgery three months ago. Losing Gordon Hayward, especially for nothing, hurt. Evan Fournier was acquired at the trade deadline but as soon as he had a couple good games he entered the Covid protocol and is now working himself back into game shape; he’s missed Boston’s last eight games. Rather than importing Myles Turner or Nikola Vucevic to shore up the center spot, or swing for the fences with James Harden or Victor Oladipo, the only former lottery talent to join the Celtics is Jabari Parker.

The draft hasn’t helped. Boston had three first-round picks last year, all between 14 and 30, and was widely expected to try and move up; as a contender seeking high-end talent to raise their ceiling beyond the conference finals, that made sense. Whether the option never materialized or the cost was prohibitive, they didn’t. Payton Pritchard has had a nice rookie season, and Aaron Nesmith could turn out to be a solid NBA player. But right now they’re not even secondary pieces. Come the playoffs they’ll be tertiary, quaternary or glued to the bench. For all the draft picks accumulated in recent years, Tatum and Brown are the only Celtics under the age of 25 averaging 20+ minutes a night.

In recent years the Celtics were top-10, sometimes top-five in both offensive and defensive ratings. This year they’re middle of the pack. Any meaningful turnaround will come from Boston’s two best players. There’s reason for hope.

Tatum is showing signs of intangible growth, the kind that elevates a player from unmistakably good to one capable of orchestrating without scoring. Brown continues to excel on both ends of the floor. He and Smart have played in four postseasons together; Tatum’s been there for three; Kemba was there last year. They’ve won enough to know how to do it and lost enough to be hungry. Philadelphia has question marks, especially scoring. Brooklyn’s never fully healthy. Milwaukee is not the dominant team of recent years. Mid-level noobs New York and Atlanta have no playoff experience. Maybe Boston is in position to sneak in under the radar.

There are still enough Oklahoma City and Orlando and Cleveland games to ensure the Celtics make the playoffs. They’re not a team any of the Eastern powers want to see in the first round, and the Knicks or Hawks’ Cinderella seasons could turn very pumpkin-y with a first-round matchup with the Celtics. But Boston is running out of time to make its mark, and not just this season. Tatum’s max extension kicks in next year. We still don’t know what the Celtics are, but if they don’t figure it out soon that question is going to get harder and more expensive to answer pretty soon.

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