BOSTON — There was something in the inflection of Al Horford’s voice that underscored the complexity of the issues the Boston Celtics face early in the 2018-19 season.
When Horford addressed reporters at Tuesday’s previously unscheduled offday practice, his voice was softer, his answers shorter. On the heels of another maddening loss in Charlotte, it felt like Horford was as exasperated as the common fan about Boston’s continued struggles.
After Horford got done answering a question about the burden of expectations, he was asked if he’s ever experienced anything like this in his career.
“No,” he said grimly. “Very different. Very different.”
Part of what’s been so frustrating for these Celtics is that there is not one single player or one single issue to pin their struggles on. Sure, there are common trends: lack of overall consistency, poor shooting, struggles versus elite scorers. Combine that with individual struggles for younger players, as well as Gordon Hayward’s rehab from a catastrophic injury, and it’s not hard to see why the team has endured more troubles than anyone could have expected.
The hard part is honing in on a solution.
Boston’s issues cannot be cured in a single film session or with a single victory. And maybe that’s the most maddening part of all to these Celtics. They are so eager to be the team they were hyped up to be, yet the only way to get back to that point requires sustained effort.
These Celtics sometimes act like they want things to come fast and easy. But what they seem to forget is that they positioned themselves to be a legitimate title contender by routinely outworking opponents and never blinking in the face of adversity.
The good news for Boston is that, after a challenging schedule to start the year, there is an opportunity the rest of the calendar year to gain some momentum.
But only if players are truly committed to putting in the work. And there are a lot of areas to address along the way, most notably:
THE STARTING FIVE
Stevens isn’t wrong when he says we get overly fixated on who plays the first five minutes of each half. But the fact that Boston’s preferred starting five has struggled as much as it has underscores many of the team’s issues.
The offensive woes of Boston’s most common five-man lineup — Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Hayward, and Horford — defies all logic. On paper, this should be a juggernaut grouping full of playmakers who feast on the mismatches they can create. Instead, Boston’s supposed version of the Warriors' Death Lineup owns an anemic offensive rating of 90.8 points per 100 possessions.
Among the 25 five-man units to play at least 100 minutes in the NBA this season, only the Chicago Bulls have a lineup with a worse offensive rating (and considering the shellacking the Celtics put on Chicago, that makes some sense).
The defensive rating for Bostons’ starting five had been so elite (94.9) that it allowed Stevens to keep giving that group a chance. But, on Monday night in Charlotte, Stevens finally relented and shifted Hayward to a bench role. The hope seemingly was that, by replacing an offensive weapon with a more defensive-minded role player, it could unlock the remaining pieces.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Celtics eventually circle back to this lineup but, for now, Stevens might be better off going to matchup-based lineups, deploying Marcus Smart or Aron Baynes with four of the typical starters to see if that gives the group a jumpstart. All while the fifth starter, like Hayward, might benefit from being a focal point with reserve lineups. It will be interesting to see if Stevens shuffles which starter goes to the bench while hunting for the five-man combo that can both consistently impact the start of halves and help the Celtics sustain that play when the reserves roll in.
HAYWARD’S SLOW CLIMB TO NORMALCY
It’s a bit embarrassing to think about the way we badgered Stevens with questions about whether Hayward might have been able to return last season. Sure, Hayward himself never ruled out the possibility and the second surgery altered his timeline altogether. But, in hindsight, it was foolhardy to think Hayward could have worked his way back from the fractured ankle and thrown himself into late-season play.
It's probably still not fair to expect Hayward to be anywhere close to the player he was before the injury. But as he struggles to convert near the basket — shooting a mere 52.9 percent inside of 5 feet — it’s more clear than ever that it simply will take time for him to get comfortable again. Hayward doesn’t always have the explosion he expects to finish dunks, with only four attempts and three makes in 432 minutes of court time. (For the sake of comparison, Hayward shot 65.6 percent on shots inside 5 feet during his final season in Utah and had 72 dunks in 73 games). All this while his 3-point shot defies him (28.3 percent for the season).
The positive spin: As Hayward gets more comfortable and back to form, we’ll eventually be reminded of his All-Star talents, and it will be a major boon for Boston’s offense. For now, he’s left relying heavy on his playmaking abilities to impact the game when he’s on the court.
THE YOUNG GUYS
Maybe we underestimated the difficulty for all of Boston’s youngest players shifting back for starring roles in the playoffs. Tatum has struggled with shot selection (though the last few games have been encouraging), Brown is still searching for his place in the offense while struggling with his shot out of the gate, and Terry Rozier has seemingly pressed while trying to have the sort of tangible impact we saw from him a starter in place of Irving during the last postseason.
Tatum has drawn some grumbles for his penchant for long twos (it’s rather hilarious to see Celtics fans blame Kobe Bryant) and some lapses in energy (he was shifted off the starting group to open the second half in Phoenix). Even Irving hinted that players like Tatum need to be more disciplined. Through it all, he’s still got the best on-court net rating (plus-5.4) among big-minute players, and Boston’s minus-2.6 rating when Tatum is off the court is the worst number among all players.
Brown has struggled mightily when he’s shared the floor with Hayward, emphasizing Boston’s first-unit issues with overlapping skill sets. Brown’s offensive rating with Hayward on the court is 92.3 but spikes to 108.1 when Hayward is on the bench. Boston has a minus-4.1 rating when the duo shares the court and is plus-5.4 when just Brown is on the floor.
Brown had a solid night in Charlotte despite only 19 minutes of court time but his time should spike if he can work through his early season offensive funk. The key for Brown — and this goes for Tatum as well — might simply be not allowing offensive struggles to impact his play on the defensive end. The Celtics have to be better at moving on to the next possession instead of letting frustrations linger.
Rozier? Well, he should probably just avoid social media until the Celtics’ record stabilizes. Like most of Boston’s bench brigade, he undoubtedly desires a bigger role, but he also has to impact games more consistently during his time on the floor. Boston needs the bench to more routinely change games and much of that falls on Rozier to maximize whatever minutes are available.
There’s no sugarcoating it: The Celtics’ offense has been impossibly bad. Boston ranks 27th overall in offensive rating at 104.3. The silver lining is that the C's have generated lots of quality looks and open shots simply haven’t fallen at times. As an optimistic Stevens said Tuesday, an offensive deluge has to come eventually.
"The good news is, in my belief, those times are coming at some point, right, because we're due,” he said.
But there are areas the Celtics absolutely must improve, most notably free-throw attempt rate. Boston ranks 29th in the NBA, ahead of only the Orlando Magic. When the offense is in a funk, Boston needs Irving, Tatum, and Brown to be more aggressive to the rim. Hayward will get there more often, too, eventually. While many wonder if the Celtics have fallen too much in love with the 3-point shot, they shouldn’t be bashful with quality 3-point looks. Boston does need to throttle down the long twos, particularly early in the shot clock, and work harder for better looks more often — especially when enduring one of their many lulls.
It’s a sobering reminder, but teams that have ranked outside the top 10 in offensive rating have simply not competed for titles in recent seasons. No matter how good Boston’s defense is, it has to get to a point where it has an above-average offense. And the C's are not even close right now.
They’re too talented for it to stay that way but, like everything else ailing the Celtics, they have to be willing to work to get things right. And even when it clicks, they can’t become complacent.
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