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The morning of his team’s regular-season opener in Philadelphia, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens threw up some caution flags.
"We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves, just all the way through this week, right?” said Stevens. "Three games in four days, totally different styles every night, and it’s going to be great for us to learn what we need to do to get better. And we’ll be in position where we’ll really be tested, every single night.”
The Celtics certainly didn’t play their finest basketball — the offense was an eyesore for most of those first three games — but they emerged with a 2-1 record and feeling like there’s better basketball ahead. Stevens has noted this is still the information-gathering portion of the season but with 3.7 percent of the regular season in the rearview mirror, it’s time to make some rush judgments on how this team looks.
Every Monday during the regular season, we’ll break out our red pens and grade Boston on the week that was.
GUARDS … C+
Kemba Walker: Week 1 was a Tale of Two Kembas. Walker struggled mightily in his Boston debut, missing 14 shots in Philadelphia, and those offensive woes continued throughout the first halves of each game. First-Half Kemba shot 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) and generated 25 points over 51 minutes. But then there was Second-Half Kemba, who sizzled while shooting 51.6 percent overall (16 for 31) and 53.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc (7 for 13). Walker saved his finest work for the fourth quarters, where he was plus-21 in plus/minus in 23 minutes, and he’s a big reason Boston grabbed wins against Toronto and New York.
Marcus Smart: Like many of his teammates, Smart struggled with his shot out of the gates to the tune of 33.3 percent from the field and 26.3 percent beyond the arc. The Celtics’ offensive rating is a dismal 96.4 when Smart is on the court, and that number spikes to a team-best 112.4 when he’s on the bench. The positive side: Smart is averaging what would be a career-best five assists per game and his turnover percentage is absurdly low (6.6 percent) given his ball-handling responsibilities with the second unit.
Carsen Edwards: After his 3-point outburst in the preseason finale, expectations were probably a bit inflated for the rookie second-round pick. He missed four of the five shots he took in the opener, then was a DNP versus Toronto. He didn’t shoot particularly well in New York but chipped in 10 points over a steady 22 minutes while adding three assists and two steals. The Celtics’ offensive rating has been excellent when Edwards is on the floor.
Brad Wanamaker: We’ve seen more of Wanamaker over the first three games (19 minutes) than most probably anticipated. He brings steady ball-handling, but the offense has lagged when he’s on the court and Wanamaker has generated only two assists in his small bursts of action. Wanamaker’s playing time might ultimately be tied to how confident the Celtics are in rookie Edwards on a night-to-night basis.
WINGS … B
Jayson Tatum: His touch around the basket has defied him early but Tatum has displayed a shot profile that should make him an All-Star. Of his 61 total attempts, 25 have been inside the restricted area and 22 have been beyond the 3-point line. Consider this: If Tatum shot his career percentage at the rim this week, he’d be averaging 24.3 points per game (he’s still at 20.3). His rebounding numbers are way up (9.3 per game) and he’s been a steals fiend (3 per game), all while his turnover percentage is down despite a monster usage rate.
Jaylen Brown: Foul trouble hindered him in the opener, but Brown has been exquisite the past two games, playing with a clear aggression on both ends of the floor. Brown's ability to make things happen in transition has been particularly encouraging. From a 30-foot bounce pass to a streaking Gordon Hayward as the Celtics pulled ahead of Toronto on Friday, to his turbo-button acceleration for an and-one layup against the Knicks on Saturday, Brown is showing why the Celtics invested in his future.
Gordon Hayward: He cooled a bit after the opener in Philadelphia where he played with a definite assertiveness. The NBA’s tracking data had Hayward at 18 drives against the Sixers and that dropped to a mere four against Toronto (it rebounded to 13 in New York). Hayward needs to play with confidence and aggression, and he needs to get to the free-throw line to help the Celtics generate easy points. Still, Hayward’s importance to this offense as a whole is clear as Boston’s offensive rating plummeted 13.6 points to a team-worst 92.8 when he was off the floor.
Semi Ojeleye: With rookie Grant Williams playing more as a big than a wing, it’s allowed Ojeleye to get some early run. He has’t forced his offense the way he often did in the preseason — just two field goal attempts in 29 minutes — but he also hasn’t dented the box score much otherwise. Ojeleye has to be an eager rebounder, particularly when spelling the likes of Tatum, Brown, and Hayward, all while showcasing his defensive versatility.
Javonte Green: Injuries opened the door for Green to sneak in a couple of appearances and he landed in the highlight reel after feeding Tacko Fall on his first NBA bucket.
BIGS … C+
Enes Kanter: Kanter earned the opening-night nod at starter against Joel Embiid and did a commendable job. The NBA’s defensive data had Kanter defending Embiid for 75.8 percent of his total offensive possessions. Embiid generated 8 points on 3-of-7 shooting against Kanter while also drawing three fouls but it felt like it could have been a lot worse. Kanter’s reward, though, was getting rolled up on and suffering a knee bruise that forced him to miss the last two games.
Robert Williams: After an underwhelming preseason in which he looked a bit overanxious before suffering a concussion, Williams rebounded to play some of the best big-man minutes on the team in Week 1. Drawing a start on Saturday in New York, Williams chipped in 4 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and a block over 22 minutes. The Celtics’ offense has been at its best with Williams on the floor (a team-best offensive rating of 115.4). There’s still strides to make, defensively, but Williams has made a strong case for increased minutes regardless of the team’s health at the big man spot.
Grant Williams: You’ll hear it here all season long but good things seem to happen when Grant Williams is on the court. The rookie was plus-21 in 48 minutes, highlighted by his small-ball efforts Saturday in New York where he registered 7 points, 3 steals, and 2 blocks in 19 minutes. If he can hold his own while jousting with NBA 5s, it allows Stevens and the Celtics to lean heavier on three-wing lineups and maximize the amount of talent on the court.
Daniel Theis: The third-year big man made a strong case for starter minutes in the preseason but had a rough go early on. He played 10 Embiid-less minutes against Philadelphia but was still a minus-7. He sprained his left ankle against Toronto and tried to gut it out, but missed all seven shots he took before sitting out Saturday’s game in New York.
Vincent Poirier: The French import was a DNP the first two games then got a six-minute cameo in New York (where his line was highlighted by two fouls and a turnover). Still, good things happened offensively when Poirier was on the floor against the Knicks and we’re curious for a longer look.
Tacko Fall: TackoMania took over MSG and it was spectacular. Maybe most encouraging was that Fall already looks to have made advancements in his offensive game, so those post-practice 1-on-1 sessions must be paying off.
OFFENSE … C-
The one certainty for the Celtics this season was supposed to be a high-ceiling offense that could offset the losses the team sustained on the defensive end. Over the first three games, however, the offense has been dreadful and the defense is keeping Boston afloat. The Celtics rank 26th in the NBA in effective field goal percentage and it’s staggering the number is that high. Boston has benefited from a league-best turnover percentage and an expected increased activity on the offensive glass. The Celtics are taking good shots; they just haven’t made them. It will be interesting to see Boston’s potential once those shots start falling.
DEFENSE … B
Few pegged Boston to spend much time among the top 10 in defensive rating but, three games in, there they are at No. 8 while allowing 100 points per 100 possessions. Like the offense, Boston has benefited from turning over opponents at an absurd rate (21.4 percent, best in the league). With Walker, Smart, and Grant Williams seemingly fighting to see who can take the most charges, Boston players are at least showing a willingness to give up their bodies to generate stops.
COACHING … B
Injuries forced Celtics coach Brad Stevens to utilize a different center in each of the team’s three games. Stevens rolled the dice with Kanter defending Embiid in the opener and didn’t get burnt. You can quibble that he should have been quicker with a hook to prevent Brown from picking up four fouls in 15 minutes but Stevens has typically not overreacted to early whistles. Stevens tested small-ball lineups and found success leaning on rookie Williams. The rotation went noticeably deep most nights but should tighten as Stevens gets a firmer grasp on what works and what doesn’t. Stevens also went 1-1 in his first two attempts with coaching challenges.
HEAD OF THE CLASS: JAYSON TATUM
Take away opening-night foul trouble and Brown might have muscled his way into this spot. Second-half Kemba made a play for it as well. But Tatum has been excellent and the Celtics ought to be imploring him to maintain his aggressiveness despite his struggles finishing. If Tatum improves at drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line more consistently, it’s going to completely unlock his offensive potential. He’s also tied for second in the NBA in steals per game and has been extremely active on the offensive glass.
Celtics rookie Romeo Langford missed the first three games while recovering from a knee strain. Despite Boston’s wing glut, there do seem to be some minutes to be earned there if the Celtics lean heavy on small-ball this season and play three-wing lineups. Langford, having missed all of summer league while recovering from thumb surgery, and having missed time in the preseason with both the knee and groin injuries, is likely going to need to go to Maine to get heavy reps but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get small glimpses when he’s healthy.
Two-way guard Tremont Waters was inactive for the first week.
WEEK 1 GRADE FOR THE CELTICS … B-
Given the way the Celtics shot the ball through three games, they could easily be 0-3. Instead, they ground out a couple wins with their frontcourt dinged up. The offense is going to be better and Boston showed early it can be a better defensive team than maybe most imagined. A midweek visit from Milwaukee on Wednesday ought to tell us a whole lot more about where this team ranks in the hierarchy of the East, especially given how jagged the foul-filled opener in Philadelphia was, making it hard to glean much from that matchup.
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