Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, typically loquacious in his responses, offered a notably gnomic retort when asked Sunday how Boston might find the consistency that the team so clearly lacked during an unsavory road trip.
"Two controllable things,” said Irving, “attitude and effort.”
There will be plenty of ink spilled the next few days trying to diagnose what ails these Celtics amid an uneven 7-6 start to the 2018-19 season. Some will suggest possible lineup changes, others will ponder whether a larger roster shakeup might eventually be needed further out. Ultimately, much of Boston’s struggles might be alleviated with three things.
Attitude. Effort. And a much more favorable schedule ahead.
To be certain, the only thing consistent about the Celtics early in the new seasons has been their inconsistency. Boston has bursts of offensive pulchritude that might make the Warriors blush (see: first half in Denver, second half in Phoenix) then endure maddening stretches of two-way ineptitude that defy all reason (see: first half in Phoenix and Portland).
It’d almost be easier if Boston’s struggles could be pinned on one player and coach Brad Stevens could make a reactionary change. But as much as some want to lament Gordon Hayward’s dawdling reintegration or Jaylen Brown’s struggles to assert himself in a new role, the Celtics’ struggles run deeper than a single player.
Every rotation player on the roster has struggled in one way or another recently. Al Horford shot 18.8 percent from the 3-point arc on the 5-game road trip; Irving was spectacular offensively but had some maddening defensive lapses (including on VIctor Oladipo’s game-winner to start the trip in Indy); Jayson Tatum’s shot selection was widely panned before he finally started attacking the basket in Utah (and then he was rewarded when his 3-point shot got hot in Portland); and the entire B.W.A. seemed unable to sustain a high level of play on the rare occasions the starters were actually clicking.
The Celtics are undeniably in their own heads. They believed their own hype before the season and haven’t seemed to want to put in the sort of sustained effort necessary to actually be a great team.
Maybe that’s why Marcus Smart implored his teammates to quit making excuses after Sunday’s comeback effort in Portland fell short. The Celtics got themselves to the fringe of the NBA Finals last season by routinely outworking their opponents despite not always having the most talent on the floor.
With Irving and Hayward healthy again, the Celtics are undeniably stocked with talent but are now struggling to figure out how all the puzzle pieces work together. Until they do, they have to get back to simply outworking opponents.
"Energy, effort, those are the things that always have to be there,” said Horford.
That they haven’t been there is an indictment on the whole team, including the head coach. Brad Stevens tried to take some of the pressure off his players by absorbing blame for the team’s inconsistencies after the loss in Portland, even if it’s not his fault the Celtics have been impossibly poor shooting wide-open looks. Still, the team’s lulls have snowballed and Stevens has to be better at shaking his team from those doldrums, even if it means leaning on his whiteboard to break scoring droughts.
It’s maybe no coincidence that, on the night Boston stormed back in Phoenix, it was the second-half insertion of Smart to the first unit that helped spark that comeback. The Celtics are desperate right now for energy-givers. When Boston needed a jolt in Portland, it was Smart wrestling offensive rebounds away to generate much-needed second-chance opportunities.
It’s absolutely fair to wonder if the Celtics need some sort of rotation alteration, if only to shake things up a bit. But, even 13 games in, it would be reactionary to start really shuffling things up. Some will suggest the team needs to revert to last year’s starting lineup with Aron Baynes providing a big body up front. But despite all that ails this team, the Celtics still rank as the No. 1 defense in the league and sit eighth in defensive rebound rate. Baynes helps the effort quotient with his hard-nosed play but doesn’t necessarily cure the offensive struggles that the Celtics’ first unit has routinely experienced.
The Celtics quietly ramped Hayward’s minutes up on the final game of the road trip, playing him 31 minutes, including a rare crunch-time cameo. He’s clearly still finding his way as evidenced by his hesitation at times on both ends of the floor. Teams have targeted him defensively and he’s had rough stretches. The fear from this vantage point would be that, any move to put him on the second unit only adds another thing to his head as he tries to get over all the mental hurdles working his way back from the ankle injury. Stevens might be better off subbing Hayward early and giving him extended run with reserve groupings where he can handle the ball more, rather than shuffling him off the starting group just as his availability begins to extend.
Amid the frustrations about Boston’s play consider this: The Celtics still rank fourth overall in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, sitting behind only the Warriors, Bucks, and Raptors (and one spot ahead of the Portland team it lost to on Sunday).
The Celtics have played a daunting early season schedule, with an increased difficulty from the long road trip early in the calendar. BPI has Boston with the ninth toughest schedule in the league but only the Bucks have played a tougher slate among East teams (not that that makes it any easier to see Milwaukee three games up in the standings despite Boston’s head-to-head win).
Boston’s position might be slightly inflated by a defense that is absurdly outpacing the rest of the league. Boston ranks 17th in offensive BPI but gets a huge jolt from their defense.
But the computer model remains particularly bullish on Boston and even projected these early struggles. BPI’s expectation was a 2-3 road trip for Boston and the only game that didn’t play out to projection was in Indiana, a game that the Celtics should have won if not for Oladipo’s heroics. Incredibly, the Celtics are currently BPI favored in their next 45 (FORTY-FIVE!) games (that’ll change with a larger sample of games but it’s still jarring to see). Now, keep in mind there are games in that stretch that they are less than a point favorites, but Boston isn’t a full-fledged BPI underdog again until a visit to Milwaukee on Feb. 21.
No one expects the team to launch into some sort of absurd winning streak. And they might not beat Chicago if they display the sort of inconsistencies they’ve shown early in the season. But there’s potential to gain some steam here. There’s potential to rebuild some confidence.
If this team starts playing with attitude and effort, these games will more routinely tip in their favor.
And, if they don’t, then we can talk about bigger changes. Right now, this team simply needs an attitude adjustment and an effort injection — and maybe a little bit of homecooking.
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