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The Mysterious Case of the Celtics

Boston is trying to find its identity after a slow start to the season. Can the team turn things around?

BOSTON — On Sunday, less than two days after a disastrous 1–4 road trip, Ime Udoka gathered the Celtics in a dark room inside Boston’s practice facility and made them live through it again. All of it. Five games. 100-plus clips. Bad defense. Worse offense. Donovan Mitchell raining threes. Russell Westbrook flexing after unimpeded drives to the rim. “It was an animated film session,” says Udoka. Says Jayson Tatum, “It was what we needed. It wasn’t time to sugarcoat anything.”

It was Boston 117, Milwaukee 103 on Monday, and whether it was the film session, home court or the return of All-Star Jaylen Brown, the Celtics showed up. Tatum, on a scoring binge of late, scored 42 points. Marcus Smart, who has been scorched for his poor shooting this season, handed out 11 assists. Brown, who has missed two weeks with a hamstring injury, chipped in 19.

The offense clicked.

The defense hummed.

Milwaukee, winners of 12 of its last 14 entering Monday night, are good.

The Celtics were better.

Perhaps this will be a springboard for Boston. A third of the way through the season, the Celtics are something of a mystery. There have been good moments. An early November swing through Florida headlined by a thumping of Miami. A three-game winning streak highlighted by a blowout win over the Lakers. There have been just as many bad. A disastrous fourth quarter against Chicago. Lackluster effort against Toronto, San Antonio and Phoenix. They have been as predictable as a New England winter.

But why? Statistically, the Celtics are a good defensive team. Smart is an elite perimeter defender. Robert Williams III is a big-time shot blocker. Brown, Al Horford and Jason Richardson get into you. Even Tatum is significantly improved. But they get gashed. A lot. The Bulls lit Boston up for 39 points in the fourth quarter. The Jazz drilled the Celtics for 137. They gave up 114 points to a Clippers team playing without Paul George. They got rolled by a Suns team playing without Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

“Horrible” was how Udoka described the defense after a recent loss to the Lakers. And he was right. But why? Udoka’s schemes are different than those of Brad Stevens, the ex-coach who has migrated to the front office. Udoka has integrated a switch-heavy defense in a two-big lineup. Too often, though, effort and execution have plagued them.

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Then you have games like Milwaukee, where it comes together. The Bucks bussed into TD Garden with a top-10 offense. Against the Celtics, they shot 44.4% from the floor and 30.6% from three. Giannis Antetokounmpo was held to 20 points. Khris Middleton was limited to four. Pat Connaughton, a Boston-area native, was the only player off the Bucks bench to have a meaningful impact.

“We got back to who we were tonight,” says Udoka.

Says Grant Williams, “Tonight was all about getting back to our identity as the best defensive team in the league.”

The offensive struggles have been more predictable. Brown has missed half the season with an assortment of ailments. Smart is still finding his way as a primary playmaker. Boston’s recent first-round picks—Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard—have been largely stapled to the bench. As a team the Celtics rank in the bottom-third of the league in offensive rating, three-point shooting and assists.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) drives to the basket while defended by Milwaukee Bucks forward Rodney Hood.

Even Tatum’s efficiency has dipped. Udoka has pushed Tatum to sharpen his competitive edge. He has warned Tatum that sometimes he treats opponents with too much respect. He has reminded Tatum of the things he said to Kawhi Leonard, when Leonard was a young player in San Antonio. Tatum, says Udoka, has a habit of “respecting guys too much at times.” His message to Tatum: “These guys aren’t your older brother. Don’t treat them like that.”

On Monday, Tatum didn’t. He was 16–25 from the floor. He was 7–13 from beyond the three-point line. He chipped in five rebounds and four assists. As a team the Celtics handed out 31 assists—eight above their season average. The return of Brown seemed to open up the floor for Tatum. “You can’t double-team both of us,” says Brown. Udoka’s pep talk appeared to have stuck.

“You want to respect everybody in the game,” Tatum said, “but, you know, go out there and put your imprint on it and be who you’re supposed to be, and that’s basically what he was advocating for me to do.”

So are these the real Celtics? Maybe. As quickly as Boston’s confidence was restored by a win over Giannis & Co., Stephen Curry and the Warriors, in town Friday, could take it away. As fluidly as the ball moved against Milwaukee, the stagnant offense that has plagued the team this season could return. The Celtics celebrated Brown’s return Monday, but that may have only temporarily quieted the chorus of critics that don’t see Brown and Tatum as a long-term fit.

Asked about how the team can bottle Monday’s success, Brown said it needed to forget about it.

“It’s a short-term memory,” Brown. “It’s just one game. Obviously we’re coming back from a tough stretch. We’ve got to just take care of business and take it one game at a time and just get back to playing basketball the right way and keep moving in the right direction.”

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