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The Celtics Have an Excuse…But Can They Avoid Using It?

The Boston Celtics are playoff-bound, but just lost center Robbie Williams to injury. Will they crash and burn or will recent history change?

2013 Boston Celtics 2 by Michael Tiptonis licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Celtics Have an Excuse…But Can They Avoid Using It?

Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Since January 29th, there has been no adversity for the Boston Celtics.

A nine-game win streak, followed by a 2-2 stretch and then a pair of win streaks that together meant wins in eleven of 12 games between March 1st and March 23rd. Huge blowout wins against playoff teams, including Philadelphia (135-87), Brooklyn (129-106), Golden State (110-88), and Utah (125-97).

Then, in a win over Minnesota on March 27th, center Robbie Williams left with an injury that was eventually diagnosed as a torn meniscus. Surgery was necessary and the expected timetable is a minimum of four weeks.

Williams has emerged as one of the best shot blockers in the league and even a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Prior to the injury, he had also added another skill to his repertoire, one that had been an issue in the past – durability. The fourth-year center had started 61 games and averaged nearly 30 minutes a night. He looked like he was finally able to hold up over the course of a full NBA season.

The loss of Williams is a bummer. He has become one of my favorite Celtics and the difference he makes on both ends of the floor is dynamic. But as much as I am worried about the loss of him in the lineup from an X’s and O’s standpoint, what worries me more is how it will feed into what has been Boston’s Achilles heel since the end of the Big 3 era.

The “Shut it Down” Factor

This team has talent. What they don’t have is resiliency.

Last year, as they limped to the finish line of a disappointing regular season with a 36-36 record, the team learned that Jaylen Brown would miss the end of the year and all of the playoffs with a torn ligament in his wrist.

An already soft Celtics team that had slumped through the season looking for someone else to point the finger at now had a built-in excuse for an early playoff exit.

As overwhelming underdogs against Brooklyn in the first rounds, the Celtics barely put up a fight. Tatum seemed more interested in partying with Durant and Kyrie than beating them. Irving stomped on the Celtics logo and accused the city of racism and not one Celtic came out against him. Kemba Walker bagged out of the last two games in Brooklyn with a bone bruise, and Williams himself sat out both with an ankle injury.

After the series, Marcus Smart had this to say about the postseason: ”It’s been a lot. Injuries on top of injuries. Guys not being able to play together. A lot of personal stuff. It’s life, things more important than basketball, but you’ve got to be professional.”

It’s a familiar tune from the Celtics, who, to be fair, have had bad luck with some injuries, dating back to Gordon Hayward’s nightmare of a debut in 2017. For years they have blamed chemistry issues and underperformance on lack of time together on the court.

It’s akin to the Red Sox and their trope when standing pat at the trade deadline. “Why didn’t you make a move for a pitcher?” “What do you mean? We have Chris Sale coming back – that was our move.”

If things go south this postseason, and the brass of the Boston Celtics run it back again next year with the same group, leaning on the excuse “Well, we’ll have Robbie next time,” they are doing a disservice to their team and to the fans.

Could it All Fall Apart?

This is a group that has become unstoppable over the last three months. But there’s not really a great explanation for why.

“They have begun playing for each other. They are sharing the ball better. They’re filling their roles and not trying to do too much.”

All of that makes sense, but it still doesn’t answer the question of why. Why now, when they haven’t been able to put it all together for consistent periods over the last five years?

The inability to answer that question makes me believe that we are still just moments from it all unraveling again. And when a mini losing streak starts (it has already started, as the Celtics have dropped their last two since Williams went down), or when the team gets behind in a playoff series, will they be able to rally behind their talent, which is still good enough without Williams to make a deep run? Or will they pack it in, knowing that they have a built-in excuse on their hands, and cry “No Fair!” as they have done in the past?

The excuse is there for this Celtics team if they come crashing back to Earth and tumble out of the playoffs. Let’s hope they can stop themselves from using it.  

Craig has spent the last ten years as a sports information professional, working for several schools across New England at the Division 3 level. A native of Peabody, Mass., Craig is a life-long Boston sports fan. He is also an avid player of fantasy football and baseball, and commissioner of the AKA Family Fantasy Football League. Like most other Turf team members, Craig has a penchant for theater, spending his high school and college years as a set designer, sound designer and theater shop worker. He became a father shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, and as such, hasn't really left his home since last December.

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