After a four-game preseason slate that was light on proper basketball and heavy on what-the-hell-was-that? the Celtics have until opening night October 16th to get their shot together.
That said opener against Philadelphia may be contested without benefit of Marcus Smart, ejected for a shove from behind that escalated an incident during Saturday’s loss in Cleveland, is almost immaterial at this point.
The operative word to this stage has probably been “preseason,” but there is no doubt the Celts — for all the grand expectations of a trip to the NBA Finals — have seen what life can be like when they don’t perform cohesively.
Even without Kyrie Irving (rib contusion) in the last two games, they didn’t manage a single lead in the home-and-home wrap-up with the Cavaliers, trailing by 20 in each game on the way to a 1-3 exhibition mark (they split with Charlotte).
And this last loss came after Brad Stevens had chastised his lads, saying “I couldn’t be more unimpressed after our first three exhibition games,” and “We’re not as good as advertised right now.”
His goal for the next week-plus is simple.
“Play better basketball,” Stevens said after Saturday’s 113-102 loss in Cleveland. “This week has to be completely focused on team and completely focused on we and that’s what we’re going to get to. There can’t be any other feeling out. There’s no more games to feel out. So we’ll see if we’re good enough next week or 10 days from now and then it will start. If you’re not good enough, you’re in trouble.
“I just want to play with spirit and passion and togetherness, and we just have to find that kind of joy in playing together. The last couple of nights, for whatever reason, have not looked like practice. They’ve looked like, for whatever reason, we’re just playing like … kind of waltzing through the motions and we’ve got to be better than that.
“I think we’ll find out how important all these preseason games are down the road, and I don’t know that there’s an exact answer — certainly not an ability to predict 10 days from now.”
As for whether the Celts have been taking things too easily, Stevens said, “Not in practice. [I] sense that in games a little bit, but that takes away from Charlotte and Cleveland and that’s not fair. Those guys came out and played hard. It didn’t matter who had a Charlotte uniform on or a Cleveland uniform on. And some of our best basketball in the last two games has been in our fourth quarter, really playing together and moving the ball.
“I think that, ultimately, whatever the case may be, the signs of progress have been behind closed doors. So we’ll see.
“But, you know what, you’ve got to be able to translate it.”
Al Horford echoed that sentiment.
“Yeah, we’ve had some good practice,” he said, “[but] we need to be better and we need to be able to translate that better into the game. So over these next few days we’ll get after it.
“We have a lot of work ahead. That’s just the reality of it. No excuses. We have a lot of work to do.”
Said Terry Rozier, “I feel like we need to get our mind right, take some time off. But at the same time, we’ve got to get out there and find our way.
“I feel like we [think we] arrived or something, like we won something. And teams know that people are talking about us every time you turn on the TV. So that’s going to motivate them to want to beat us — to come out, no matter if it’s the second string or third string, no matter who it is.
“So we’ve got to stay grounded. We’ve got to go back to playing Boston Celtics basketball and who we are, instead of thinking we’re above everybody.”
Rozier had 17 points on Saturday, playing in front of his father for the first time (the elder was released from prison this summer), but his most notable play came when he and Jayson Tatum tackled Smart, who was still trying to get at J.R. Smith after the latter had shoved Aaron Baynes.
“Just trying to not let the situation escalate,” Rozier said. “Just trying to do whatever I can to hold him back, and had to tackle him. But, you know, sometimes emotions get high and things like that. I get it. Sometimes you’ve just got to calm down though. It’s preseason. No dirty stuff should go on, but at the same time, we just got to let things go sometimes.
“I never usually get in people’s way, because I understand sometimes when people are ticked off you’ve just got to let them calm down. You’ve just got to give them a minute. I’m the same way. But you’ve got to do what we can to protect our guys.”
It’s been hard to protect Smart from himself. He missed time last season after punching a picture frame in a hotel room, and his emotions were at the surface well after the game Saturday, even though the incident that saw him ejected occurred in the first quarter.
Smart repeatedly said he would be available to Smith away from the court and pointed twice to a tattoo on his forearm of his recently deceased mother.
As quoted in Sunday’s Herald, Smart said, “I told him to come back [to] the back. All that on the court, we can handle that off the court. I ain’t with that. And that’s on my mama, may she rest in peace. Ain’t no punk right here.”
Later, Smith fired back on Twitter, telling Smart to meet him on the street.
No doubt the league office will be having a say in this matter.