Why the slumping Celtics no longer look like the league's best team

BOSTON – Remember November? When the Celtics were the NBA’s feel-good story, surging through a grimace-worthy (and likely) season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward to rattle off 16 straight wins and start the season 22-4? That team beat San Antonio, upended Golden State and looked like a legitimate threat to LeBron James’ Eastern Conference supremacy.

Then came December, a defensive collapse and a return to the kind of mediocrity many feared when Hayward went down. Boston’s 111-103 Christmas Day loss to Washington was a familiar story — poor defense, horrendous rebounding and an offense overly reliant on the brilliance of Kyrie Irving to put points on the board.

What’s happened? Let’s start with what’s easy: The schedule has been brutal. Boston was tabbed for the NBA’s annual London game this year, and the schedule-makers — at the Celtics’ behest — gave the team four days off before and after. The fallout has been a compressed, pre-London schedule that has had Boston playing more games (37) at this point than any team in the league.

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Boston Celtics lose to Washington Wizards on Christmas Day
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Boston Celtics lose to Washington Wizards on Christmas Day
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Jayson Tatum #0 and Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics react after a call from the official during the fourth quarter of the game against the Washington Wizards at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Head Coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics looks on during the fourth quarter of the game against the Washington Wizards at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics looks down during the fourth quarter of the game against the Washington Wizards at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards shoots over Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics during the second quarter of the game at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics looks on during game against the Washington Wizards on December 25, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics and John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards speak during the game on December 25, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Kelly Oubre Jr. #12 of the Washington Wizards shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics on December 25, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics posts up against Markieff Morris #5 of the Washington Wizards during the second quarter of the game at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards drives to the basket against the Boston Celtics on December 25, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the game against the Washington Wizards on December 25, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards talk after the game at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards embrace after the final whistle of the game at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
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Big deal? Boston doesn’t think so. “Everyone is tired in the league,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Everybody has 82 games. We’ve had plenty of rest.” Still, it’s hard to ignore the evidence. Entering the game against the Wizards, Boston had played 150 more minutes than Washington. The vaunted Celtics defense — No. 1 in the NBA through its first 26 games — has fallen to 18th in its last 10. Turnovers are up. Rebounding has cratered.

“There’s not much difference, I just think you go through ups and downs in a season,” center Al Horford said. “We are still the same team. I actually think that we are better.”

Fatigue is only one factor in a packed schedule. Practice time is limited. Mistakes that young players make — and Boston hands big minutes to a few of them — are cleaned up in walk-throughs and film sessions instead of on the practice court. It matters.

There’s more, though. Depth was a concern in the aftermath of Hayward’s injury. It’s a bigger one now. Boston’s bench has been at best streaky and at worst anemic. Marcus Smart’s perimeter shooting has run hot and cold. Terry Rozier’s, too. Stevens has had to shuffle starters in with the second unit, as he did during Boston’s narrow win over Memphis earlier this month.

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Celtics fans support Gordon Hayward after injury
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Celtics fans support Gordon Hayward after injury
BOSTON - OCTOBER 18: Twelve-year-old Ryan Higgins of West Roxbury signs a giant 'Get Well' card on the wall in the TD Garden concourse, where fans could leave a message for Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward was injured in the team's season-opening game in Cleveland the previous night. The Boston Celtics host the Milwaukee Bucks in the team's home season opener at TD Garden in Boston on Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - OCTOBER 18: Before the game, North Station commuters walk past an ad featuring Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, who was injured the previous night in the team's season-opening game in Cleveland. The Boston Celtics host the Milwaukee Bucks in the team's home season opener at TD Garden in Boston on Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - OCTOBER 18: Joshua Cordeiro, left, and John Habershaw, both of Bristol, RI. express their support for Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, who was injured in the team's season-opening game in Cleveland the previous night. The Boston Celtics host the Milwaukee Bucks in the team's home season opener at TD Garden in Boston on Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - OCTOBER 18: A young fan holds a sign expressing support for Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, who was injured in the team's season-opening game in Cleveland the previous night. Another fan next to him sports a #20 Hayward jersey. The Boston Celtics host the Milwaukee Bucks in the team's home season opener at TD Garden in Boston on Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 18: Gordon Hayward #20 of the Boston Celtics sends a message to fans through a recorded video before the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at TD Garden on October 18, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. Hayward did not attend the game after breaking his ankle the night before in the season opening game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON - OCTOBER 18: Two fans wearing Gordon Hayward #20 and Kyrie Irving #11 jerseys head for their seats before the game. Hayward was injured the previous night during the team's season-opening game in Cleveland. The Boston Celtics host the Milwaukee Bucks in the team's home season opener at TD Garden in Boston on Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - OCTOBER 18: Fans cheers when a photo of Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, who was injured the previous night during the team's season-opening game in Cleveland, is shown on the scoreboard before the game. The Boston Celtics host the Milwaukee Bucks in the team's home season opener at TD Garden in Boston on Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - OCTOBER 18: Matt Stenuis of Belchertown signs a giant 'Get Well' card on the wall in the TD Garden concourse, where fans could leave a message for Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward was injured in the team's season-opening game in Cleveland the previous night. The Boston Celtics host the Milwaukee Bucks in the team's home season opener at TD Garden in Boston on Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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It’s a problem Boston is all too aware of. Some of it will be resolved with health. Marcus Morris made his return to the lineup on Monday after a nine-game absence because of a knee injury, and his versatility on both ends of the floor has been invaluable. But the Celtics remain among the NBA’s most active teams on the trade market, with an $8.4 million Disabled Player Exception available to absorb a contract or two. Boston’s pursuit of Anthony Davis has become the NBA’s most open secret, but it’s potentially available reserves such as Lou Williams and Tyreke Evans who could more realistically move the needle.

And let’s be real here: Boston was playing with fire early in the season, and often got away with it. Monday marked the 15th time this season the Celtics had fallen behind by 11-plus points. Boston’s record in the previous 14? 7-7. They had a miracle comeback in Oklahoma City, stormed back from 17 down to beat Golden State and erased a 16-point deficit in Atlanta. There are only so many holes you can dig yourself out of.

So would the real Boston please stand up? Chances are, in January, it will. The London trip will provide much needed rest, and Jayson Tatum gets better by the game. At 19, Tatum’s poise has been remarkable, and it was his 3-point shooting (again) that nearly powered Boston to another comeback win.

“It’s amazing to see his growth,” said Wizards guard Bradley Beal, whose friendship with Tatum dates back to their days in St. Louis. “It’s amazing to see him do it on this level. He’s a special talent. … Sometimes he’s a little too cool. Sometimes he needs to be a straight-up killer and take over some games. But it will definitely come for him.”

The East is a weird place right now. The Cavs — Monday’s loss in Oakland notwithstanding — have been hot, but James has been forced to work harder, earlier than in years past and we still have no idea what Isaiah Thomas is going to look like when he comes back. Toronto is officially the conference leader, but can the Raptors — even with a new-look offense — be trusted in the postseason. Will Milwaukee get a boost from Jabari Parker? Will Washington, finally injury-free, put together a run?

Strange days, indeed. Cleveland is more vulnerable than it has been since LeBron returned, but Boston will need to rediscover its defensive identity to knock off the Cavs — or any of the conference contenders for that matter. The dog days of the season have come early for the Celtics. A young team must figure out how to shake them off.

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