The Boston Celtics’ record is now 2-2 after a demoralizing 93-90 loss to the Orlando Magic last night. While the season is only four games old, it’s not too early to point out that, so far, the Celtics haven’t looked anything like the team fans were fantasizing about all offseason. In fact, they have the worst offensive rating in the Eastern Conference.
While it’s only been a week, it’s been a humbling one for the Celtics. On Opening Night they had a big win over a clearly jumbled Philadelphia 76ers team despite poor nights from both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The next game, they lost to the Toronto Raptors on the road and then they barely pulled off a win against the New York Knicks the next night. Yesterday’s home loss to the Orlando Magic highlighted all of their weaknesses, particularly on the offensive end. As the Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti points out, the rest of the league has started out on a scoring tear, but the Celtics are the only team that is currently averaging less than a hundred points per game. It probably doesn’t help that they are now 30th in the league in free throw attempts.
There are a million caveats here, of course. This is essentially Gordon Hayward’s first season with the team and he’s still experiencing soreness from the catastrophic injury that greeted him Opening Day last year. Hayward, in fact, sat out the Knicks game, which was something of a setback for the team considering that he was showing flashes of his old self during the game in Toronto. It’s also not realistic to expect Kyrie Irving to immediately return to form after multiple knee surgeries and just start taking over games in the second half like he did last season.
Still, last night’s game was worrisome. Although it only ended up being a three-point loss, and Boston had a very good chance of tying it up late, the Magic outplayed them all night. Were they playing a more talented opponent, one imagines that the Celtics could have lost by double-digits. Their defense was fine, if not quite at the level it could be, but the offense was absolutely maddening, with players missing layups and open threes all night long. (They went 9-for-40 from behind the three-point line.)
There were warning signs during the preseason. At a certain point during the exhibition season, Stevens even called them out for believing too strongly in the offseason hype around the team. Last night, Stevens echoed that line of thought, saying “we aren’t as good as everybody thinks we are.”
Stevens’s comments suggest that he thinks there’s a psychological component at play here as well. For the first time since he was hired as head coach, the Celtics started the regular season as favorites. The team, however, can’t afford to think of themselves like that, especially now that they can expect opposing teams to come at them with their best shot on a nightly basis. This is a very talented team, but it’s not a super team. They’re not going to be able to coast through the regular season like the Golden State Warriors or the LeBron James led teams that made the NBA Finals eight years in a row.
Stevens, oddly enough, was positive about the Celtics’ offense, “Clearly you can always point to the shot making, but that was the best we’ve played offensively all year.” Granted, that may have been less of a compliment about last night’s performance than a dig on how they’ve played up to this point.
Stevens wasn’t entirely wrong either: they were taking the right shots, they just weren’t making them, and at this point early in the season, the process is more important than the results. The shots the Celtics are missing now will eventually start going in. This whole venture is a work in progress and there’s still 78 more games to go in the regular season.
The first few weeks of the NBA season are about finding an identity, and this is a team still trying to reincorporate Irving and accomodate Hayward for the very first time. It’s going to take time for the Celtics to become that team they are “on paper.” They also, however, can’t afford to assume that it’s just going to happen eventually because they’re too talented not to figure it out. They’re going to have to work for it. If they focus too much on the future, they risk finding themselves in trouble in the present.
It’s a tricky balance, to be sure, but the whole thing comes down to Brad Stevens’s most beloved cliche: it’s all about seeking improvement on a game-by-game basis. As long as the team keeps that in mind, these early struggles will be forgotten by Christmas.