Celtics

Only thing the Celtics need to change right now is their attitude

Only thing the Celtics need to change right now is their attitude

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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Celtics visit skidding Wizards in Wednesday NBA odds matchup

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Celtics visit skidding Wizards in Wednesday NBA odds matchup

The Boston Celtics (16-10) are expected to have point guard Kyrie Irving in the lineup on Wednesday when they try to extend their winning streak to seven games against the Washington Wizards (11-16) in an Eastern Conference matchup. The Celtics opened as 2-point road favorites for the game on the NBA odds at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com with Irving likely back from a shoulder injury.

Irving missed Boston's latest victory on Monday along with four of his teammates, with the rest of the squad knocking off the New Orleans Pelicans 113-100 as a 2.5-point home favorite. In addition to Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Guerschon Yabusele all sat out the win over the Pelicans due to various ailments after the Celtics routed the Chicago Bulls 133-77 as 7.5-point road favorites at the United Center on Saturday.

Hayward (illness) and Horford (knee) are the most notable ailing players besides Irving, with the former listed as doubtful and the latter questionable on the injury report. The Wizards are also dealing with injuries as they look to end a two-game losing streak, although point guard John Wall (foot) is expected to play while forward Otto Porter (knee) is questionable as well.

Historically speaking, Washington has given Boston some fits recently dating back to a second-round playoff matchup two years ago. The fourth-seeded Wizards lost that series in seven games to the top-seeded Celtics in 2017, but they have since won three of the last four regular-season meetings, according to the OddsShark NBA Database.

The most recent game between the teams took place last April 10 at Washington and resulted in a 113-101 victory for the host as a 7.5-point home favorite. The Wizards rallied back from a 30-22 deficit at the end of the first quarter behind a game-high 29 points and 12 assists from Wall. Irving and Hayward missed that game too with injuries along with Boston's playoff run.

Washington has dropped its last two games overall on the road both straight up and against the spread but has won four in a row at home SU and ATS. The Wizards will be playing their first game at Capital One Arena since December 1 after going 2-2 SU and ATS on a four-game road trip. The Celtics have gone a perfect 6-0 ATS during their current winning streak

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How to watch or stream the Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards game

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How to watch or stream the Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards game

Kyrie Irving's back, but Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and Guerschon Yabusele are still on the sidelines -- and Aron Baynes may be, too -- as the Celtics travel to Washington to take on the Wizards.

HOW TO WATCH

ANALYSIS AND REACTION

BEFORE THE GAME: At 6:30 p.m., Celtics Pregame Live presented by TD Bank gets you ready for the game with reports from Kyle Draper and A. Sherrod Blakely in Burlington, and Mike Gorman, Brian Scalabrine, Chris Forsberg and Abby Chin in Washington. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the livestream.

AT HALFTIME: Tune in to watch Kyle and Sherrod break down the first two quarters on Halftime Live presented by Ace Ticket. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the livestream.

AFTER THE GAME: As soon as the game ends, tune to Celtics Postgame Live presented by New England Ford for analysis, commentary and player reaction. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the livestream.

Questions on our livestream? Get all your questions answered here on our Streaming FAQ

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BY THE NUMBERS

FOLLOW THE LEADER

Kyrie Irving is always working on his game, but this season he's taken a particular interest in another area -- his leadership. Irving has made it a point to be a more vocal leader for the C's, and people have begun to notice.

FOR EXAMPLE . . .

Kyrie's tough-love approach with Jaylen Brown seems to be working.

THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

Making the playoffs in 2018 is still paying dividends for the Celtics.

MAKING THE GRADE . . . WITH HELP

There are advantages to being twins, and Marcus and Markieff Morris -- facing each other tonight when Marcus' Celtics play Markieff's Wizards -- certainly reaped the benefits growing up. Like taking tests for each other.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

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