Maybe the Boston Celtics will throttle up when the real games start.
Maybe having Jayson Tatum on the floor for upwards of 40 minutes per game will mask some of the deficiencies that have otherwise been glaring in an abbreviated preseason.
But the fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to be optimistic about where the Celtics stand entering the 2020-21 regular season.
Friday night provided a double dose of gut punches as not only was Boston’s effort incredibly uninspired in its final tuneup, but the rival Brooklyn Nets looked every bit the legitimate Eastern Conference contender they’ve been billed with the return of Kevin Durant.
We’d love to blame this on Kyrie Irving and his sage but this is now two straight games in which the Celtics have looked offensively disjointed and defensively disinterested. Tatum was solid and was somehow in the positive for plus/minus in a game in which the Celtics trailed by as much as 36 en route to a 113-89 defeat at TD Garden.
But just about everybody else? Woof. Jaylen Brown showcased some nice playmaking but also had the sort of defensive miscues that would have left Marcus Smart flipping tables if this was the postseason. Smart and Brown paired up to go 2 for 13 from beyond the 3-point arc. The War on Theis rages on.
And let’s not even talk about the bench. The sight of Jeff Green posterizing rookie Aaron Nesmith and providing his “Welcome to the NBA!” moment summed up the second unit’s night. Hey, at least Robert Williams had good minutes but even he was minus-15 overall.
"We're not even close to that group that was in the bubble,” fretted Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "We’ve got a lot of work to do to get to that point. We gotta play a lot better than we have."
All this while Durant looked poised to regain his stature as one of the NBA’s elite. Playing only his second game since returning from the Achilles tear that ended his Golden State tenure in June 2019, Durant dazzled with slick pull-ups and slithering moves to the rim.
The Celtics finished 8 of 44 beyond the 3-point arc. This after going 11 of 39 from deep in its preseason opener against the Sixers. Boston obviously has to shoot it better in the regular season. And yet it’s clear that this offense is so different without Kemba Walker on the court.
Walker is going to miss at least the first month of the season. Tristan Thompson can help, too, when he’s recovered from a hamstring strain. But the Celtics open with the Bucks and Nets — maybe the two most talented teams in the East — then play six of their next seven games on the road. There’s a high potential for lump-taking in the early going.
All of which means the Celtics need someone outside their core to elevate their play. And no one seems quite ready to embrace that opportunity.
Rookie Payton Pritchard came back to Earth a bit after his encouraging debut. Jeff Teague, too. Grant Williams missed all six shots he took including a trio of 3-pointers. Javonte Green got another start and didn’t put up a shot in 10 minutes. Carsen Edwards missed all five of his shots and we’re left wondering how long the Celtics can wait for him to find his way.
The Celtics will likely be just fine in the long term. It’s not like their core has forgotten how to play basketball in the 75 days since their bubble exit. But the absence of Walker and the departure of Gordon Hayward has complicated matters for this team. It puts more pressure on Tatum, Brown, and Smart with this team unable to stay afloat if any combination of that group has an off night.
“We’ll know more on Wednesday,” said Stevens. “Obviously, we haven’t played well in the majority of these two games. And certainly our first group has not played well — or just generally the guys that are going to play the share of the minutes. So we’re going to have to make sure we get a lot better and get ready for Wednesday. We’ve got a really good team, Milwaukee, coming in. At the same time, these games are exhibition games for a reason, so we’ll learn from them and move on.”
The Celtics might need to see if Irving has any sage leftover from his pregame cleanse. Because the team needs to change its vibes before the real games start.