Celtics Report Card: Offense deserves detention after woeful week
Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked Sunday to assess what he learned about his squad during its five-game road trip out west.
"I knew before we went into the road trip that we were fighters,” said Stevens. "That was pretty clear from Day 1. I knew we would be together, that's been pretty clear from Day 1.”
The Celtics certainly showed hints of being resilient as part of a winning streak that reached double digits at the start of the trip but it felt like we learned a lot more about this team’s character in the losses to the Clippers and Nuggets.
There’s plenty for this team to clean up, especially after an anemic offensive performance out west, but this professor is far more bullish about this team after a tough week than at times during their winning ways. Let’s hand out Week 5 grades:
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Marcus Smart (A-)
Before Smart hobbled his way out of the Pepsi Center, a trainer attached an ice pack so bulky to his sore right hip that Smart could barely pull up his elastic-waist sweatpants. Smart had bruised the hip at the start of the trip, aggravated it when he dove to force a key late-game turnover that gave Boston a final gasp against the Clippers, and yet none of the bumps and bruises he endured out west were enough to keep Smart off the court. Smart was the team’s second-leading scorer last week (15.7 points per game) despite his 3-point shot defying him (after our perfectly-timed article about how steady he’d been). After Buddy Hield and the Kings snapped Boston’s winning streak, Smart set the defensive tone for the rest of the trip.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Brad Wanamaker (B+)
With Gordon Hayward sidelined, there’s been minutes available and Wanamaker made the strongest case for them of Boston’s bench brigade, averaging 12.7 points, 5 assists, and 1.3 steals over 27.9 minutes over the last three games. Stevens saved some of his highest praise for Wanamaker, who played crunch-time minutes in Denver after Kemba Walker injured his neck. Wanamaker, a 30-year-old NBA sophomore, is making the most of an opportunity he couldn’t have been certain would exist when he re-signed this summer.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Enes Kanter (B)
With Boston’s offense slumping, Kanter gave the team a little jolt off the bench, thanks in part to his rebound-chasing ways. Kanter averaged 4.7 points and 5 rebounds despite playing only 10.5 minutes per game last week. Maybe more encouraging: The Celtics had a defensive rating of 88.4 with Kanter on the court and he had the second best net rating on the team (plus-16) behind only Grant Williams among regulars.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Jayson Tatum (B)
Tatum shouldered Boston’s scoring load, averaging a team-best 24 points per game last week and continued his clutch ways, hitting an overtime-forcing 3-pointer in LA after dropping Paul George. The only downside: Tatum didn’t get enough shots in the fourth quarter against the Clippers, and he was a surprising minus-21 for the week, unable to maintain his typical trend of being the team leader in that category.
First-quarter offense (F)
The Celtics scored 60 first-quarter points in three games last week while shooting 32.9 percent overall and 11.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc. They were minus-11 in the first quarters, and it felt worse than that given the deficits Boston was forced to rally back from. Admitted Stevens: “Our first quarters are terrible and we've got to improve that … Our offensive purpose in those quarters led to a bad offensive trip and we have to improve."
Finding the hot hand (D+)
Tatum erupted for 14 third-quarter points against the Clippers on 5-of-7 shooting. After playing nearly the entire frame, he rested at the start of the fourth but Boston got him just one shot — his overtime-forcing 3 — over the final 5:45 of regulation. That’s unacceptable. The Celtics have to do a better job of getting shots for Tatum — or whoever has the hot hand — especially given how good he’s been in crunch-time situations this season.
3-point shooting (D-)
The Celtics shot a woeful 27.4 percent (31 of 113) beyond the arc in three games last week. Wanamaker was the only regular at 40 percent or better. Tatum shot just 33.3 percent, Walker was at a mere 23.5, and Smart was at 21.7. Grant Williams is still looking for his first pro 3-ball, missing five more attempts last week. The Celtics are too skilled to live and die by the 3-ball.
Carsen Edwards (C-)
There’s been bench minutes available with Hayward out and Walker injured at the end of the trip. But Edwards logged only 17 minutes over the past three games, earning a DNP versus the Clippers. His shot continues to defy him, shooting 22.2 percent overall (2 of 9) and 16.7 percent beyond the arc (1 of 6). The Celtics need every bit of offense they can get right now and Edwards hasn’t been able to get cooking in short bursts of minutes. Maybe expectations remain a bit too high from his preseason outburst in Cleveland but the Celtics needed a jolt last week and he was one of many who couldn’t provide it.
When the Celtics left for their five-game road trip out west, they owned the No. 1 offense in the league, putting up a robust 113.8 points per 100 possessions. During the five-game trip, Boston’s offensive rating was a meager 98.8, or nearly 3 points worse than the closest team over that nine-day span (and a ridiculous 30.8 points lower than the Mavericks team that topped the league in that span). In the three games last week, Boston’s offensive rating dipped to an anemic 96.4. A dropoff could be expected when Hayward got hurt but the Celtics’ biggest issue has simply been consistency. They’ve started slow and often covered for it with strong finishes. Said Stevens: "We just have to not dig ourselves those holes.”
In part because of their offensive woes, the Celtics ratcheted up their defensive intensity out west. After a defensive dud against the Kings — a team they meet again Monday in Boston — the Celtics really dug in on defense the rest of the trip. Boston’s defensive rating was 94.7 over the final three games out west. That has helped the Celtics climb to No. 3 in the NBA in defensive rating while allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions (tied with the Bucks). Smart set the tone with his intensity and willingness to defend the opposition’s top options but the rest of the roster followed his path. Tatum was the only player on Boston’s roster with a defensive rating north of 100 last week and even he was at 101.4, which would lead the NBA if maintained.
Stevens needs to figure out why his teams have been slow out of the gates, an issue that was apparent long before the stumbles out west. While his team has showed great resolve in overcoming early deficits and he’s typically pressed all the right buttons as games go on — especially using his whiteboard to draw up plays for much-needed buckets — he has to figure out how to get them to play with more consistency. Stevens had a rare moment where he lost his cool in overtime against the Clippers, earning an ill-timed technical foul while arguing against a blocking foul on Kemba Walker that Stevens was certain was a charge.
A 2-3 road trip wasn’t what the Celtics were hoping for. A 1-2 week wasn’t ideal either, especially after a solid win in Phoenix on the second night of a back-to-back. But we’ll say it again: The good far outweighed the bad out west. Whether it was going toe-to-toe with the NBA’s championship favorite in LA, or finding a way to make things interesting after the shock of watching Walker being carted off in Denver, you have to like Boston’s grit and resolve. They had some underwhelming wins at the end of that early season winning streak that left us grading harshly. The opposite occurs this week as there’s positives to build on and we yearn to see what this team is capable of at full strength. Clean up the offense and this team’s marks would be even glitzier.