5 Questions for the Celtics 2020-2021 Season


In the time-warping year that is 2020, Professional basketball is set to return before J.R Smith’s hands have even left the 2019-2020 Championship trophy. The specter of Covid still hangs over the world and the long winter ahead is driving everyone back indoors and back into isolation. Basketball in the Walt Disney World bubble was one of the few bright spots of a summer that will forever be remembered as one of the most trying and divisive times in our history. Now we will get to watch games again and just in time, it seems. We could use a distraction now, and basketball is as good as anything to fill the void.

So let’s the forget life-or-death questions for a minute, if we can. Let’s think about something truly fun and utterly irrelevent. Let’s think about all the interesting things related to a bunch pituitary cases stuffing a ball through a hoop. In this case, five questions about the Boston Celtics upcoming season.

What is Jaylen Brown’s Ceiling?

Jayson Tatum is the number-one option on the Celtics. That is no longer a question. In the past, it might have been Kyrie Irving or Gordon Heyward or Kemba Walker, but Boston is indisputably Tatum’s team now. With that question answered, the one that hangs over this season is: How good can Jaylen Brown be as Tatum’s number-two.

Brown has been very good in his first four seasons, showing an array of skills that could make him an elite two-way player. By Defensive win shares, he ranked 11th among guards last season. He averaged a career high 20.3 points per game and showed improved shooting ability with a career high in field goal percentage and his second-best 3-point percentage, while averaging more threes a game than in any previous season. His athletic ability has always been his greatest asset, but he has shown improved decision-making and shooting as he has developed. All of these improvements are enticing, but if the Celtics are going to beat teams like the Heat, the Bucks and the Sixers to win the East, Brown needs to level up again. If he continues to improve on both sides of the ball, he and Tatum might be the best one-two punch in the East and second only to Lebron and AD in the league. If this is Brown’s ceiling, however, he is good player and still a valuable starter on a contender, but he is not a superstar and the Celtics will need a few more things to break right to be in the upper echelon of the teams this year.

Can Tacko Fall really contribute?

Tacko Fall has been in the league for one season and he is already beloved. Of course, he is. He is fourteen feet tall and weighs 165. He can grab a quarter off the top of the backboard without jumping, which is good because he has a six-inch vertical. His wingspan is unknown but lies some below that of an F14 and above an Andean Condor. He is the most well-liked teammate since Bill Russell and he has never been seen without a smile. It is easy to assume with all these completely not-exaggerated traits, he would be a dominant basketball player. But the NBA is a cruel place and even exceptional size and length aren’t always enough.

The questions around Brown and a few others are central to how successful the Celtics will be, but the question of Tacko Fall is central to how fun the season will be. Fall still lacks many of the skills and basketball instincts he needs to be successful regular in the NBA but his coaches have been impressed with his development and work ethic. When he is on the court, it is impossible to look away from him. Even in a league stocked with seven-footers, his height stands out. Combined with his magnetic personality, that makes him someone every basketball fan can root for. If he can find a consistent role with Boston this season, it will make the games more fun to watch, plain and simple.

How bad are Kemba Walker’s knees?

When it became clear that the Celtics would need to move of the enigma that is Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker seemed like the prefect replacement. He could boast many of the same scoring and ball-handling abilities and pair those on-the-court skills with a more agreeable personality off the court. Walker might not have been everything that Irving, but he appeared to fit in better with the team in the locker room and he is certainly better suited to playing the secondary option now that Jayson Tatum has emerged as a star scorer.

Unfortunately, he shares one negative in common with Irving- his failing knees. Walker struggled in the later rounds of the playoffs last season after re-injuring his left knee and he will miss the start of the season thanks to that same injury. Back up point guard Jeff Teague will step in until Walker can return, but the Celtics will not be as dangerous without a fully operational Walker bringing the ball up. Walker was the paragon of durability in his first eight seasons with Charlotte. Boston won’t need to depend on him carrying as much of the offensive burden has the Hornets did, so they can bring him along slowly which should help him get back to that kind of dependability, but a smaller guard with failing knees is a recipe for a sharp decline. If Walker’s knees are going to be his demise, the Celtics will be missing a big piece in the puzzle going forward.

Can any of these kids play?

One candidate to step in for Walker long term could be the newly-drafted Peyton Pritchard, who looked great in his first time on an NBA court in Tuesday’s preseason game against the 76ers. The 22-year-old is the latest upside gamble the Celtics have taken late in the draft now that the run of high picks that netted Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum has elevated them back into contention.

That puts him in a group with Fall, Carsen Edwards, Javonte Green, Tremont Waters, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and the Timelord himself, Robert Williams. All of these players are intriguing, all of them are young and all of them are giant question marks. The Celtics are a strong team one through seven. After that, there are few players who can be counted on. Having one or two guys step into a clear role off the bench could be huge for this team.

How far can Jayson Tatum carry this team?

Maybe Jaylen Brown will become Kawhi Leonard and dominant both ends of the floor. Maybe Tacko Fall will morph into peak Dikembe Mutombo. Maybe Kemba Walker will be Dame Lilliard throughout the playoffs and Grant Williams, Robert Williams and Carsen Edwards will force a three-way tie for the Most Improved Player Award. Maybe Marcus Smart will finally reveal he is, in fact, Thor of Asgard and smote Lebron James with Mjolnir to complete the Celtics sweep of Laker in the Finals.

Maybe.

More realistically, the team will go as far as Jayson Tatum can carry them. Tatum first showed his alpha-dog swagger in his rookie season, dunking on Lebron and helping drag a Kyrie-less Boston team to just a few points away from making the NBA Finals. In his third year, he established himself as a legit star, scoring 23.4 points per game in the regular season and 25.7 a game in the playoffs. He has become an impact defender and a dynamic creator on offense. He carried the team past Toronto in the bubble when Walker faltered on his damaged knee. Against Miami’s tenacious defense, he still managed 20-plus points in all six games, scoring 30 or more twice. He is their best player and when the games matter most, it will be Jayson Tatum who decided how far the Celtics can go this season.

NBA Playoffs: Was That Just the Celtics Own “Confetti Game”


Yesterday, the Boston Celtics lost to the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of NBA East Conference Semi-Finals in one most heartbreaking finishes I have ever witnessed. After a brilliant play by Kemba Walker to give the Celtics a two-point advantage with 0.5 seconds remaining, Raptor’s point guard, Kyle Lowery managed to find OG Anunoby in the far corner and heave a cross-court pass of 7’5 Tacko Fall, giving Anunoby just enough time to shoot a three, which rattled off the back iron and into the net for the game-winner. It was an incredible play by both Lowery and Anunoby and a huge boner for the Celtics zone defense who never should have let Anunoby have that much space to himself.

As a Celtics fan, my mind immediately went to the “Confetti Game“- the classic Celtics win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2018 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Confetti might not have rained down on the court after Walker found Theis at the rim for the go-ahead dunk, but it might as well have. The Raptors looked stunned. The Celtics were jubilant. It looked almost certain that Boston would take a 3-0 lead in the series and turn their eyes toward their second sweep of the 2020 postseason. It was hard to imagine Toronto getting a shot off in 0.5 seconds, nevermind an open look at a game-winning three.

But Nick Nurse was the Coach of the Year for a reason. He drew up a play that forced the Celtics zone to commit hard to the primary options- Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. Had the Celtics been in man-to-man, Jayson Tatum likely would have followed Anunoby to the corner and the play would have had to go to VanVleet off of Gasol’s screen, probably a less dangerous option than what occurred. The zone the Celtics set was designed to prevent the action at the top of the key or on the strong side. It is hard to blame them for that with the incredible wingspan of Tacko Fall guarding the in-bound and so little time on the clock that any cross-court action would necessitate an absolutely perfect pass. Lowery made that pass and Anunoby made the shot. If the ball fell just a few inches shorter, or Anunoby was just a little slower on the gather, the Celtics win.

It’s the razor-thin margin of error that the Raptors walked that makes me think of the Confetti Game. Had Marco Bellinelli’s toe been two inches further back, Philadelphia would have won that game. Instead, they only tied and had to watch as the confetti that rained down to celebrate the apparent-win was cleaned up. They were lifeless and error-prone in the overtime that followed. To their credit Philadelphia did rally to win Game 4, but that was too little and too late at that point. Game 3 should have been a win, but instead it became a defining loss- the first in an ever-growing number of “what-if” defeated for the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid Process 76ers.

Circumstances are different for the Celtics in this series. They led 2-0 going to the game and the Raptors had to fight tooth and nail just to hang with Boston, playing , Lowery, Anunoby and VanVleet all over forty minutes and Siakam for just under thirty-eight ( only Jaylen Brown topped forty minutes for Boston). Perhaps most significantly, there is no home-court advantage in the bubble, so Boston did not have face their heartbreak in front of their own fans, hearing the life sucked from the building as the ball sailed through the net or listen to the explosion of joy that would followed Anunoby’s shot in Toronto.

I am worried for my Celtics, however. Some losses are motivating and others are devastating. The loses that kill teams are usually the ones that should have been wins- the Red Sox losing Game 6 in 1986, the Cavs Game 1 loss in 2018. Those are the ones that are hard for teams to recover from. Many teams never rebound, never get over that feel that they were robbed.

The Celtics are the better team here, though, and that can’t be said of the 2018 Cavs or the 1986 Red Sox. The young stars that were just beginning to come into their own when the confetti fell in Philly are now dominating the East. If Tatum and Brown- the two players most responsible for the last-minute defensive lapse- can shake this off and close out this series against the Raptors, they are serious contenders for the crown. They will have shown that they have the mental toughness to go with all their skills with the ball. If they drop Game 3 in a funk and struggle to close out Toronto, this might just be their own Confetti Game.

NBA Playoffs: The Boston Celtics and the Season of the Weird


Tonight the Boston Celtics continue their playoff run against the Philadelphia 76ers, playing the role of underdogs despite home court advantage and the superior regular season record. They are underdogs because their best player, point guard Kyrie Irving, will not play this spring following knee surgery. Their game-one win, like the rest of their improbable run to the second seed in the East, surprised just about everyone. Since five minutes into the season, when their star free-agent acquisition, Gordon Heyward, fell to a horrific leg injury, this Celtics team has been recalibrating people’s expectations almost night-to-night.

The plot points for the Celtics season have the feel of a sappy sports film. Their big star addition goes down in the opening, throwing a 19-year-old Jayson Tatum into the NBA fray. He steps up and proves he can hang throughout a 16-game winning streak in Act One, but the long grind of the season chips away at this plucky band of youngsters and at the close of Act Two, their other star, Irving goes down, leaving only the kids and “Average Al”- the much-maligned max-contract star to face down a seven-foot tall Greek Freak and then the ascendant 76ers before the climatic (and heroic-tragic) battle with the Big-Bad- The King, Lebron.

But though the broad-stroke outline of the 2017-2018 Celtics season reads like a Sean Astin-in-an-indie-hoops-film, from a fans perspective, it has felt like something else entirely.  Like something closer to The Big Lebowski or Friday. A season drenched in psychedelia and funk. The 2016-2017 Celtics season owns the claim to the dramatic archs, with the “King in the Fourth” run for Isaiah Thomas leading to heartbreak and betrayal. 2018 is the Season of the Weird, both for the Celtics and for the sporting world in general. The strange synergy between the raw, young talent in Boston’s TD Garden and the bizarre phenomenon of #weirdcelticstwitter has been one of the most fun experiences of my sports-watching life and, I believe, a foreshadowing of the bold, insane, new world of closer fan-player relations.

It is hard to define exactly what Weird Celtics Twitter is. It’s like porn, I suppose. You know it when you see it (and also, you spend way too much time staring at it after your wife and kids are asleep- A-YO! amirite!). It is definitely certain specific things though. It’s Tito-Three Sticks, Third of his Name.  It’s Combat Muscles. It’s Mad Brad and Dabuselethe third eye and Terrygarcia. It is Smarf* and, of course, is Janos. Weird Celtics Twitter is not unlike many other things I have found myself in close proximity to throughout my life. It’s a weird, nerdy niche group that is full of inside jokes and obscure references that only matter to “us,” whoever the “us” might be. I can’t claim to be part of it, but following the antics of WCT has been one of my favorite things in 2018.

*I will go to my grave believing there is a connection between Smarf and the 2013 Over the Monster nickname for Shane Victorino, Shanf. To. My. Grave. 

But the thing that has made the Celtics so fun this season and made Weird Celtics Twitter so fun, is that those two worlds, which should be so, so, separated, have been…can I say copasetic. At the very least, there has been interplay and that is the weirdest thing about Weird Celtics Twitter. This should be a thing that only matters to a small group of fans, but it has bled into the mainstream and infected it with its weirdness in the best possible ways.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge has responded to the strange Celtics-and-soup twitter poster Janos, WCT’s OG. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor (a Celtics fan, originally) says he tried to reference Thick-Jacked (a variation of the Combat Muscles meme) in a Ringer article. Terry Rozier even ended up embracing the Scary Terry nickname to settle down the Tito*>T-Ro beef instigated by Sam “Jam” Packard, one of the Locked-On Celtics podcast hosts. Now, the nickname is everywhere. If this isn’t wonderful shit, you and I define “wonderful shit” very differently.

*#TeamTito- for life!

Weird Celtics Twitter is having its moment in part because it is the perfect storm of a team and fanbase. These things happen in sports and they are always great. What makes WCT feel different to me is the way it fits with the new media world that the NBA and its players are so eager to embrace. It is not the world of Michael Jordon in Spike-Lee-directed Nike spots and Warner Brother movies. It is the world where Isaiah Thomas releases the extremely personal “Book of Isaiah” on Youtube through The Player’s Tribune. It is the world where Kevin Durant has burner accounts to argue with twitter eggs about his free agency choice and where he coins the term “blog boys” on a podcast, The Ringer puts it on a T-shirt, and Steph Curry wears it to the next game.

Vertical integration in media is gone. Now everything goes everywhere. If you are a cult player and back-up point guard, you jump on the chance to get a few hundred weirdos who love you to embrace your brand, even if it means donning a scream mask and ditching the nickname T-Ro for Scary Terry. Now, the inside jokes have a path straight into the heart of the culture.

And the memes feed themselves. As Celtics players embraced their own weirdness, WeirD Celtics Twitter embraced them more. Kyrie Irving was respected as an elite talent, but his role as IT replacement and his ridiculous flat-earth comments made fans weary of him as a celebrity. Rather than glad-hand Neil Degrasse Tyson and say, “my bad,” Kyrie steered toward the weird and clarified his flat-earth statements with even more obscura and brought fans through the looking glass until it became a kind of charming psuedo-intellectual-goofball mysticism. 

The history of sports has mostly been the history of players distancing themselves from the fans. Back in early days of baseball, fans could talk to the players on the bench, move the home run fences forward and back and even see their guys at the bar or the local hotel. The need for security for the athletes and the sports have pushed the two sides apart, but if Weird Celtics Twitter and the 2018 Celtics are any indication, that separation may be waning in a world where intellectual connection does not require physical connection and the two sides are constantly engaged in a strange kind of dialogue that encompasses what happens on the court, in the media, in marketing rooms and ad agencies and on social media.

It is possible that this is simply a chance occurrence; the story of the right team and the right fanbase coming together, but the Celtics Season of the Weird seems like more than that to me. It seems like the first step in fans and players moving closer together in a way that is unique to the world that social media has created.