BOSTON – The coach called the players, a player called the coach, teammates were shooting in public and the team were loudly booed in each of their three home games. Other than that, the Celtics’ season has started well.
What’s going on in Boston? Without the hapless Houston and a furious fourth-quarter comeback to Charlotte, the Celtics could easily be winless to start the year. On Monday, the Bulls pulled off a 39-11 run in the fourth quarter, turning a 14-point deficit into a 14-point victory. It was the first time since the mid-1950s that a team had lost by 14 points or more after leading by more than 14 points.
In an interview with NBC Sports Boston on Tuesday, former coach-turned-top executive Brad Stevens suggested that “structurally” the squad was much better than 2-5..
Stevens, one of the sharpest minds in NBA basketball, knows more.
You are what your record says you are, Bill Parcells once said, and the Celtics are very 2–5. Jayson Tatum leads the NBA in field goal attempts (24.6) but is having his most ineffective season on the ground (39.5%) and three points (27.1%). His constant and often demonstrative complaints to the referees have earned him an undesirable reputation, especially since the number of faults he calls are not to begin with.
Jaylen Brown came off the quarantine couch to score 46 points in the season opener against New York, but he’s been slick since. In the aftermath of a poor performance against Washington last week, Ime Udoka called Brown’s inconsistency “mind-boggling.” (Brown later agreed.) Next, Marcus Smart, after Boston took a big lead against Chicago, urged Brown (2.5 assists) and Tatum (3.7) to pass the ball more.
Udoka got a head coaching opportunity after successful stints as an assistant in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, but he also deserves close scrutiny. Udoka has vowed to turn the Celtics into a better passing team. Boston’s attendance rate this season (16.5) is in the lower half of the NBA. On Monday, Smart suggested he could be a better point guard if he wasn’t always stuck in a corner.
The Celtics’ defensive rating (110.3, per NBA.com) is 25e, and how is this possible? Udoka has joined the head coach ranks with a solid defensive reputation and the Boston roster is full of strong defenders. Smart is one of the best in the NBA on the perimeter. Brown has improved every year. Robert Williams is averaging nearly three blocks per game while Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder and Al Horford are above par, if not better. They’re a team with the talent to be a top-five defense. Instead, it sits at the bottom.
Boston has a collection of strong young players. Udoka, however, relied more on the veterans, giving Schröder (31.7) and Richardson (21.8) heavier minutes than Romeo Langford (17), Payton Pritchard (13.7) and Aaron Nesmith ( 7.0). Which is good if the Celtics won. It’s harder to figure out when they’re not.
Stevens also owns this start. It was Stevens who got rid of Kemba Walker, making Smart the team’s best playmaker. Smart shooting issues (less than 30% ground and three point line) will be fixed. But he’s never been a natural point guard and on the night he criticized Tatum and Brown’s deaths he didn’t register any assists. Walker, meanwhile, has started all seven games for the 5-2 Knicks and leads—first!– the NBA as a percentage of three points.
Stevens moved away from Evan Fournier and that one always doesn’t make much sense. The four-year, $ 78 million deal Fournier signed with New York last summer is actually a three-year, $ 57 million deal (the final year is a team option), a reasonable deal. (and tradable) in the current market. Fournier is connecting on 43% of his three this season, starting alongside Walker. The Knicks’ offensive rating (113.5) is fourth in the NBA. Boston does 33.7% of its three. The Celtics’ offensive rating (104.6) is 19e.
There is time to right the ship, of course, and too much talent in Boston for him not to. Tatum is an elite goalscorer, Brown has just completed his first All-Star season and Udoka deserves more than a few weeks to get his coaching system and style established. But the effort is troubling. The defense is worrying. The public bickering so early in the season is, well, unsettling. When asked if this collection of players was “the right group,” Stevens responded with something everyone can agree with: “We’ll find out.”
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