DENVER — In an alternate timeline, Victor Oladipo misses a late 3-pointer, Jamal Murray doesn’t have the ultimate breakout game, and the Boston Celtics are 8-2, riding the wave of a seven-game win streak and trailing only the 10-1 Toronto Raptors for first in the Eastern Conference.
But even in that timeline, all would not be fixed. The Celtics’ offense still would have stalled out badly after the first quarter against the Denver Nuggets (and really, the first half of the first quarter). Kyrie Irving still would have been asked to do a significant amount of the heavy lifting as the Celtics tried to hold Denver off (Irving is capable of doing a lot of lifting, so maybe it would have worked).
Not to sound like Brad Stevens (although maybe he is starting to influence the media core): It’s less about the results and more about how the team gets there.
“I thought we generated good looks a lot of the game and maybe there were spurts in the second quarter we weren’t as good,” Stevens said. “And that was the same thing in the Indiana game. But I thought we got a little iso-heavy at time. But we were driving it, getting to the rim. We were making extra passes out. We missed some inside-out threes. We didn’t shoot it as well as we’ve been shooting it from three. But our attack was better and they’re a good defensive team. Overall I leave here encouraged by our offense and discouraged by one guy that went nuts.”
If you want something besides Jamal Murray’s 48-point detonation to blame for Monday’s loss, the isolation basketball probably deserves a look. After flying up and down the court in the opening minutes, the Celtics slowed down and couldn’t turn stops into transition opportunities. Those transition opportunities were killing Denver early. When they dried up, the Celtics looked like a completely different team.
The Celtics keep showing flashes of what they could be. Those spurts need to happen more consistently, and when they slow down, the Celtics can’t afford to bottom out and give up the lead completely. Nobody expects the Celtics to shoot 63 percent all four quarters like they did in the first on Monday, but getting to a comparable level to the team that pulled away from the Philadelphia 76ers on Opening Night or the one that throttled Detroit on the road would pull the Celtics a lot close to their lofty preseason expectations.
“An easy two here, or getting the clock to stop and then having them run another possession, it could always equate to us getting back in the game,” Irving said. “So I think down the stretch we shot a few too many threes rather than taking the easy ones.”
But even the shot selection doesn’t seem like it gets at the root of the problem, despite handwringing over the number of threes they have been taking. The Celtics are at their best when the offense is creating open shots and triples are flying freely.
Rather, the biggest issue Monday felt like stagnation. When Boston went into its second and third lineups on Monday, the offense deflated like a balloon. As noted by Adam Himmelsbach, the Celtics were outscored 72-47 at one point after taking an early 18-point lead, which can’t all be attributed to Murray’s heroics and an abundance of shots from deep.
“Just keep going,” Jaylen Brown said. “That’s what it takes to win. This our league, and you have to maintain (a lead), and keep it up if we can. Start wavering once we get a big lead — we have to hit them in the mouth. Let our foot off the gas, and we lose.”
Celtics fans are probably sick of hearing this, but there’s still no reason to hit the panic button yet. The Celtics don’t look particularly inspiring, but the season is 10 games old, and they could easily be 8-2 even with a fairly difficult schedule. There are plenty of reason to believe the haggard offense will shed a lot of its ugliness as players continue to grow together.
But none of that is meant to say that everything is fine — the Celtics have plenty of issues, and while they still seem correctable, the consecutive losses have illuminated them. The only difference is that instead of patching over the losses with an 8-2 record and a seven-game winning streak, the flaws are out in the open.