His team off to a somewhat underwhelming 6-4 start, including dropping the first two games of its current five-game road trip, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens this week offered a noteworthy assessment of his team out of the gates of the 2018-19 season.
“For whatever reason, we can have some of the most beautiful basketball played and then we can throw away a few possessions,” said Stevens. "That’s got to change if we want to be good.”
The Celtics will be good. They should eventually be great. This team simply need to find the consistency that’s maddeningly evaded them through 10 games.
We’ve seen enough small glimpses of Boston’s potential to know that this team has the ability to mingle among the NBA’s elite. The Celtics’ first-quarter offensive explosion in Denver on Monday was some of the sexiest basketball played this season in a league on a scoring binge. And Boston’s defense is on pace to own the best defensive rating in the NBA in three years despite that current offensive boom.
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But it's also true that the Celtics have underachieved. They’ve endured a couple head-slapping losses, including an inexcusable dud against the visiting Orlando Magic, then fumbled away a win in Indiana at the start of this trip. Then Jamal Murray singlehandedly willed the Nuggets to a win on Monday night, carving up Boston’s top-ranked defense.
Growing pains were expected and there are plenty of kinks to work out, especially with regards to the rotation and how Stevens can best deploy his talent. Boston’s jagged start isn’t quite as dire as some make it seem based on record alone. And anyone rushing to the Trade Machine ought to let the season breath a bit.
With help from a stout defense (at least outside of crunch time, more on that later), the Celtics ranked fourth in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index entering Wednesday’s action and trailed only the Warriors, Raptors, and Bucks— or teams that were a combined 29-3.
Despite the early bumps, BPI projected Boston as a 55-win team capable of pushing Toronto and Milwaukee at the top of the East. The Celtics have played the eighth-toughest schedule, per BPI, and this season-long five-game road trip has certainly added to that degree of difficulty. It’s notable that the seven teams ahead of Boston in strength of schedule this season were a combined 27-44 (.380 winning percentage) through Tuesday and only one of those teams has a winning record (Portland, 8-3).
Which is to say: Things could be worse. But they could also be better.
The Celtics have all the necessary talent and ability to thrive; they simply need to find consistency. Some of that will come in time, as roles and rotations become cemented, and as Gordon Hayward feels more like his old self. The preseason should have prepared us for some turbulence but it’s understandably frustrating when the Celtics perform at elite levels for small stretches and then fall into bad habits.
While so much attention has fallen on a Jekyll/Hyde offense, one thing that could aid the Celtics is better crunch-time defense.
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A league-high eight of Boston’s 10 games this season have hit the crunch-time criteria — games within 5 points in last 5 minutes — and the Celtics are just 4-4 in those contests.
On the encouraging side, Boston is 4-2 in games within one-possession in the final two minutes, and it would be 5-1 if not for Victor Oladipo. The Celtics’ overall crunch-time offensive execution has been solid with the team posting a robust 122.8 offensive rating over 26 minutes of crunch-time play.
The concerning part is that the team’s league-leading defense seems to regress in the fourth quarter. That Boston has played so many close games confirms that alone. But the Celtics' defensive rating in crunch time also vaults to 118.3, which ranks 21st in the league. That’s nearly 18 points higher than Boston’s overall rating and would rank 30th in the NBA if maintained.
Great teams win close games. Last season, the four teams with the best regular-season win percentage in crunch-time games were the last four teams standing in the playoffs in the Rockets (.714), Cavaliers (.667), Warriors (.655), and Celtics (.630). Boston played 46 crunch-time games last year — tied for sixth most in the NBA — and had a 29-17 record in those games.
Of the 12 teams that finished with a .500 record or worse in crunch-time games, only one (Wizards, 21-24) made the postseason.
The Celtics need to find a way to harness their stretches of “beautiful basketball.” They need to keep their foot on the accelerator longer when they are clicking. And that’s why Irving pointed to more dependability when asked for a state of the union through 10 games.
“Just trying to build that consistency. That’s all,” Irving told reporters in Phoenix this week. "Until then, once we put a few games together, even in the tough ones where it may look like the team may have control of the game but we still have the will of a disciplined team, of knowing what shots we need to take, knowing where we need to be, the pace we need to play with, the physicality, that’s when you start seeing the separation of the good from the great teams …
“Once you realize you have the potential to be very special and it’s realized amongst all of us, we’ll be alright.”
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