DALLAS – Marcus Smart emerged from the visiting locker room on Saturday, and in the aftermath of the Celtics' 113-104 loss to the Mavericks, there was a palpable interest in what he was going to say. Smart—the longest tenured Celtic, in his fifth year with the franchise—has been especially blunt with his assessments of Boston’s sluggish start. He told his teammates there were “no more excuses” after a loss in Portland wrapped a 1–4 road trip earlier this month. He told the media the Celtics were “playing like punks” after an ugly loss to the Knicks.
And the loss to Dallas?
“We don’t impose our fear and will on other teams,” Smart said. “Last year, teams used to, when they came in and played the Celtics, they knew they were in for a fight. This year, teams can’t wait to play us. That’s a problem.”
And the solution?
“I don’t even know what to say to you guys at this point,” Smart said. “Literally, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had literally no answer for any questions. I honestly don’t know what it is. I’m stumped right now.”
Boston’s slow start—the Celtics are 10–10 headed into Monday’s game in New Orleans—is the NBA’s most inexplicable story line. Everyone was high on the Celtics coming into the season. Everyone. Vegas oddsmakers pegged Boston at close to 60 wins. Pundits—including The Crossover staff—predicted a trip to the NBA Finals. Green team optimists pointed to the Celtics' record against the Warriors the last two seasons as proof the team was a serious title contender.
Today? “You’re almost at that rock bottom point where the team is about to blow up,” Kyrie Irving said. “Not saying that we’re there, but for me there is no more time to waste.”
The Celtics added a pair of high-scoring All-Stars in Irving and Gordon Hayward to a team that advanced to the conference finals last season without them, and the offense has bottomed out. Boston is 27th in the NBA in efficiency. They rank dead last in the league in points in the paint. They don’t get to the free throw line, they rarely rack up second-chance points and shoot more wide open shots than any team but Milwaukee, per NBA.com, and are sandwiched between the Suns and Knicks in the percentage they make (37.9%).
This is a three-point shooting team—35.8 attempts per game, third most in the NBA—that isn’t making enough three’s (34.3%, tied for 19th in the league) to justify them. Under Brad Stevens, Boston has regularly ranked in the top-10 in three-point attempts, but the Celtics finished in the top half of the NBA in three-point percentage two years ago, and last season finished second, just behind Golden State.
So what gives? Certainly the Celtics aren’t getting any C-plus effort nights from opponents. Boston was a scrappy underdog when the Isaiah Thomas-led team swiped the No. 1 seed in 2016-17. They were the resilient bunch when they overcame the loss of Hayward to win 55 games last season. This year they are no longer David, but Goliath, a star-studded bunch built to win, and every team that takes the floor against them knows it.
“They are a very high-profile team,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “They are getting a lot of people’s best games.”
How many of the issues hinge on effort? Earlier this month, Irving warned that the Celtics weren’t as good as they thought they were. Stevens has repeatedly chided his team for not competing for the full 48 minutes. Boston routinely digs itself early holes, like they did against Dallas, claws its way out of them before, more often than not this season, coming up short.
On Saturday, the Celtics didn’t succumb to Dirk Nowitzki—he didn’t play. Neither did Dennis Smith Jr., the Mavs budding point guard. They were outworked by Dorian Finney-Smith. They were outmatched by a 19-year old rookie, Luka Doncic. They were buried under an avalanche of layups, runners and three-pointers from J.J. Barea.
Indeed, the Celtics defense is statistically solid—second in efficiency—but at times vastly overrated. The Knicks, on the second end of a back-to-back last week, posted 117 points on Boston. The Celtics sliced the Mavs lead to three early in the fourth quarter before a pair of Dallas threes pushed it to nine moments later—and the game effectively out of reach. Guards have exploited Boston’s defense, from Jamal Murray and Devin Booker to Trey Burke and Barea.
Teams are opening games too comfortable against Boston, Smart said, “and once we figure that out, things will start changing. Until then, we’ll continue to get our a-- whooped.”
How much do Boston’s issues fall on Stevens? Stevens's rise from mid-major college coach to an elite NBA one has been meteoric, and his ability to maximize talent (Jae Crowder, Evan Turner, Isaiah Thomas) is exceptional. But this is Stevens's first season coaching with real expectations, and while Boston certainly has a surplus of players, it falls on Stevens to find lineups that work. The Celtics's on-court chemistry has been lousy, and after rolling out a super small lineup to start the season, Stevens is back to mixing and matching, searching for a rotation that clicks.
Ask people around the Celtics for specifics to explain the team’s struggles, and you won’t find many. That lack of chemistry is pointed out often. Irving’s return has pushed Terry Rozier to the bench, and the result has been Rozier’s shooting numbers dipping well below last season’s. The reintegration of Irving and Hayward has led to fewer opportunities for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, causing their shooting numbers to take a hit. Hayward, a year removed from a catastrophic ankle injury that cost him all of last season, is still shaking off the rust.
But the effort? The energy? The inability to sustain both for a full game? Good luck getting a good answer to any of that.
These are trying times in Boston. Irving has reached out to players who have been in similar positions, searching for solutions. GM Danny Ainge won’t blow up this roster, but with the unofficial start to trade season kicking off next month, Ainge could look to tweak it a little. The Celtics are hording assets for a run at Anthony Davis next summer—Boston will likely have a handful of first-round picks next June, including Sacramento’s top-1 protected pick—but they have a deep war chest to make a minor deal.
There is still a strong belief within the Celtics that they will figure it out. But Thanksgiving has come and gone and Christmas is just around the corner. There are plenty of questions in Boston. The clock is ticking on finding the answers.