BOSTON — The coach has called out the players, a player has called out the coach, teammates are publicly sniping and the team has been loudly booed in each of its three home games. Other than that, the Celtics season is off to a stellar start.
What’s going on in Boston? If not for hapless Houston and a furious fourth quarter comeback in Charlotte, the Celtics could easily be winless to start the year. On Monday, the Bulls ripped off a 39-11 run in the fourth quarter, turning a 14-point deficit into a 14-point win. It was the first time since the mid-'50s that a team lost by 14 or more points after leading by 14-plus.
In an interview with NBC Sports Boston on Tuesday, Brad Stevens, the ex-coach turned top exec, suggested that, from a “structural standpoint,” the team was a lot better than 2–5.
Stevens, one of the NBA’s sharpest basketball minds, knows better.
You are what your record says you are, Bill Parcells once said, and the Celtics are very 2–5. Jayson Tatum leads the NBA in field goal attempts (24.6) but is having his most inefficient season from the floor (39.5%) and three-point range (27.1%). His constant, and often demonstrative, complaining to referees is earning him an unwanted reputation, more so considering how many times the fouls he’s calling for aren’t fouls to begin with.
Jaylen Brown came off the quarantine couch to score 46 in the season opener against New York, but he has been uneven since. In the aftermath of a lackluster performance against Washington last week, Ime Udoka called Brown’s inconsistency “mind boggling.” (Brown later agreed.) Then Marcus Smart, after Boston blew a big lead against Chicago, urged Brown (2.5 assists) and Tatum (3.7) to pass the ball more.
Udoka earned a head coaching opportunity after successful stints as an assistant in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, but he deserves scrutiny, too. Udoka promised to turn the Celtics into a better passing team. Boston’s assist ratio this season (16.5) is in the bottom half of the NBA. On Monday, Smart suggested he could be a better playmaker if he wasn’t always stranded in a corner.
The Celtics' defensive rating (110.3, per NBA.com) is 25th, and how is that possible? Udoka joined the head coaching ranks with a strong defensive reputation and Boston’s roster is loaded with sturdy defenders. Smart is one of the NBA’s best on the perimeter. Brown has improved every year. Robert Williams is averaging nearly three blocks per game while Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder and Al Horford are above average, or better. This is a team with the talent to be a top-five defense. Instead, it sits at the bottom.
Boston has a collection of solid young players. Udoka, though, has leaned more on veterans, handing heavier minutes to Schröder (31.7) and Richardson (21.8) than Romeo Langford (17), Payton Pritchard (13.7) and Aaron Nesmith (7.0). Which is fine if the Celtics were winning. It’s more difficult to understand when they are not.
Stevens owns this start, too. It was Stevens who offloaded Kemba Walker, effectively anointing Smart as the team’s top playmaker. Smart's shooting woes (sub-30 percent from the floor and the three-point line) will correct. But he’s never been a natural point guard and on the night he criticized Tatum and Brown’s passing, he didn’t register a single assist. Walker, meanwhile, has started all seven games for the 5–2 Knicks and is leading—leading!—the NBA in three-point percentage.
Stevens walked away from Evan Fournier and that one still doesn’t make a lot of sense. The four-year, $78 million deal Fournier signed with New York last summer is really a three-year, $57 million deal (the final year is a team option), a reasonable (and tradeable) contract in today’s marketplace. Fournier is connecting on 43% of his threes this season, starting alongside Walker. The Knicks' offensive rating (113.5) is fourth in the NBA. Boston is making 33.7% of its threes. The Celtics' offensive rating (104.6) is 19th.
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There is time to right the ship, of course, and too much talent in Boston for it not to. Tatum is an elite scorer, Brown is coming off his first All-Star season and Udoka deserves more than a few weeks for his system—and style of coaching—to take hold. But the effort is troubling. The defense is troubling. The public squabbling this early in the season is, well, troubling. Asked if this collection of players was “the right group,” Stevens said something everyone can agree with: “We’re going to find out.”
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