CLEVELAND — Throughout an extremely underwhelming preseason, the Boston Celtics have downplayed their subpar play. They’ve clung to the notion that key contributors are still shedding rust, while some healthier returnees have admitted to simply going through the motions given the expectations for a long season ahead.
But the sobering reality is that these Celtics have offered virtually no visual evidence that they are capable of playing like the Eastern Conference favorite they’ve been so universally anointed, and there’s genuine trepidation in the team’s locker room about whether Boston can simply ratchet up the intensity over the nine-day crawl to opening night.
Make no mistake, it’s dangerous to get overly worked up about preseason basketball. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were a combined 15-21 over the past three seasons and that didn’t stop them from meeting in the Finals each year.
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Nobody is suggesting it’s time for panic buttons. The Celtics may very well look back and laugh off their preseason woes if they take their play to a more expected level later this month. But in the absence of any game-related evidence of such possibility, there is palpable disappointment in what the team has shown thus far.
“We have a lot of work ahead. That’s just the reality of it,” a somber Al Horford said after Saturday’s loss in Cleveland capped a 1-3 preseason. “No excuses. We have a lot of work to do.”
How confident is Horford the team can figure out what ails it?
“Not sure,” said Horford, his tepid response damning on its own. “It’s just very early in the season. We haven’t shown any [signs of being an elite team] yet. It’s a big challenge for a group.”
Outside of maybe the first quarter of Boston’s preseason opener against the Hornets, there have been very few stretches of exhibition play — at least not involving the team’s third stringers — that players can cling to.
For all the talk about Boston’s offensive struggles being solved by the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the team posted an offensive rating of 96.6 over four preseason games, all while shooting a cringeworthy 24.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
Bumps are common in preseason and few teams looked like finished products. Boston players have found encouragement in the team’s spirited offday workouts, where the team’s depth has been spotlighted in spirited 5-on-5 play.
And there is seemingly too much individual talent for the Celtics’ struggles to bleed into the regular season, particularly when Stevens can lean on his core players more than the short bursts of the preseason (a four-game stretch in which Irving sat out the final two games, and Hayward missed the finale).
But it’d be a lot easier to embrace that notion if some of that practice play had spilled into any of Boston’s four games.
“Ultimately, the signs of progress have been behind closed doors,” said Stevens.
So what needs to change for these Celtics?
“I just want to play with spirit and passion and togetherness, and we just have to find that kind of joy in playing together,” said Stevens. “The last couple of [games], for whatever reason, have not looked like practice. For whatever reason, we’re just kinda waltzing through the motions and we’ve gotta 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.”
Celtics players were scheduled for a recovery day on Monday, a chance to hit the reset button before launching into a week of practices leading to the team’s season-opener against the Philadelphia 76ers on Oct. 16.
“I feel like we need to get our mind right, take some time off,” said Terry Rozier. “But, at the same time, we’ve got to get out there and find our way. I feel like 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 be who we are, instead of thinking we’re above everybody.”
There is a case to be made that a little preseason adversity isn’t the worst thing for this team. Stevens probably enjoys having some bad game film to remind his team that they can’t expect to just show up and win this season.
But the harsh reality is that the Celtics got outplayed by Charlotte and Cleveland, two teams more likely to be scrapping for a spot at the bottom of the East playoff ladder than the top. And, masked a bit by Irving’s re-signing declaration and Marcus Smart-J.R. Smith dust-ups, the team has some serious work to do this week.
The Celtics have to be better. And they will be. But until we see evidence of it during a game situation, it’s fair to not just completely dismiss their preseason lethargy.