So much for things being different this year.
The supposedly new-look 2021-22 Celtics operated like a clone of the infuriating 2020-21 predecessors while getting completely outworked, out-muscled, and out-hustled during an embarrassing 115-83 loss to the Toronto Raptors in Boston’s home-opener at a boo-filled TD Garden.
With all the necessary, "it’s only the second game of the season!" asterisks, it’s hard to walk away from Friday’s game feeling optimistic about early returns.
Boston’s offense was a jumbled mess and the team came completely unglued for the second third quarter in as many games this season.
Then there were 25 turnovers. Boston players couldn’t dribble into a crowd without fumbling the ball. Jaylen Brown stepped out of bounds twice in the first 14 minutes of play then somehow allowed the (generously-listed) 6-foot-1 Fred VanVleet to intercept a lob attempt during a 2-on-1 break.
And there were 21 offensive rebounds that Toronto turned into 23 second-chance points. The Celtics looked like they were allergic to contact with their inability to box out. The Raptors seemingly got to every 50/50 ball -- whether off a miss or a loose ball -- and the Celtics rarely offered resistance in those instances.
"That’s as ugly as it can get,” said Celtics first-year coach Ime Udoka. "One thing I can’t stand as a coach is to get punked out there, and I felt they came out and punked us, outplayed us, played harder than us, all the things we talked about.
"You don’t want to overreact and panic. We’re going to stay together and keep our head up. But I said, 'Use these boos as motivation.' We deserved it, the way we played. Us coaches didn’t prepare them as well as we should have, understanding who Toronto is. Doesn’t matter who they have on their team, on their roster, they are going to play with that same intensity and we didn’t match it. Take it in, use it for fuel, use it for motivation to come back ready for Houston in two days.”
So the same question lingers that we repeatedly asked last season: Are the Celtics willing to put in the effort to change their bad habits?
Boston’s spacing has been atrocious and not having a wealth of shooting to slot alongside Brown and Jayson Tatum hasn’t helped matters. Boston spent way too much time complaining to the referees about a lack of whistles and continues to get crushed in transition whenever shots aren’t falling.
Maybe it’s irrational to expect a team with a fairly similar core to eliminate all of its bad habits in the span of six games (including four preseason) under a new coach. But the buzz in the ramp to the regular season was how the “warm but demanding” Udoka was going to snap Boston out of some of its more annoying habits.
Instead, most have lingered.
To Udoka’s credit, he wouldn’t lean on the excuse about tired legs, or a lack of continuity given the injuries and illnesses that left the team shorthanded for much of the exhibition slate.
“We talked about the lack of continuity in the preseason with guys being in and out but, with that being said, I mentioned the effort had always been there no matter who was playing, the nights we sat all the veterans,” said Udoka. "For there to be a lack of effort, that was disappointing for the most part."
Celtics players know their play wasn’t good enough. Al Horford called the amount of offensive rebounds allowed "unacceptable." Asked about the boos, newcomer Josh Richardson noted, "The people of Boston know basketball and know sports. ... They're being honest.”
And, being honest, the Celtics haven’t inspired a lot of confidence through the first two games of the season. Too many mental mistakes, too many lulls in intensity. This team doesn’t have enough pure talent to take its foot off the gas like it has at times the first two games.
And while it’s only two games, Boston has to develop better habits, because the 2020-21 team is a good reminder that they can be hard to kick.
And nobody wants to go through another season like that again.