Celtics

Scuffling Celtics search for their own magic

Scuffling Celtics search for their own magic

BOSTON — We didn’t get Mad Brad. Not even I’m-Not-Mad-I’m-Just-Disappointed  Brad. When Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens strode to the podium after Monday’s loss to the Orlando Magic, we got Bottom Line Brad.

“We have a job with scoreboards,” said Stevens. "Orlando’s better than Boston right now. We’ll find out if we get any better.”

It’s one thing to hear Stevens assert that his Celtics are lagging behind the Toronto Raptors in the aftermath of Friday’s loss to a chief Eastern Conference rival. With a healthy Kawhi Leonard looking every bit the MVP-caliber player he was during his San Antonio heyday and with Boston’s well-documented struggles north of the border, it was at least understandable that the Raptors were quicker out of the gates this season.

But having your coach slot you behind a young Magic squad that most expect to linger in the basement of a top-heavy East? That’s sobering. 

“I’ve said it, that we’re not as good as everybody thinks we are,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston in his postgame interview. “[Monday’s loss is] just another reminder how much we have to work.”

On his 42nd birthday, Stevens did not scold his team for gifting him another underwhelming offensive output at a time when gaudy three-digit numbers are the norm around the league. He actually praised Boston’s ball movement and lamented missed shots, even if he did offer a slight jab by noting that, “It tells you kind of where we are that that was our best offensive game so far.”

He didn’t call out the team's defense, even if 93 points allowed was a particularly deceiving number given the way the Magic bullied their way to 28 first-quarter points and left Boston playing from behind nearly the entire night.

No, Stevens just acknowledged what’s plainly obvious based on what we’ve seen from the Celtics through four regular-season games, as well as the underwhelming preseason that preceded it: The Celtics have simply not shown anything to suggest they are anywhere near as good as the team they were made out to be.

Make no mistake, there’s no reason to think Boston can't eventually get to that level. But an October loss to the visiting Magic is a firm reminder that this team is still quite a ways off.

"I have no doubt we’ll figure it out, but we definitely have a lot of work to do,” said Gordon Hayward, who, along with Kyrie Irving, missed a potential overtime-forcing 3-pointer in the closing moments.

While the Celtics most certainly generated better looks on Monday night — at least compared to the cringe-fest that was Saturday’s effort in New York, which required some late Jayson Tatum heroics to escape with a win — it’s hard to walk away too enthused when a team hoists up 40 3-pointers and shoots just 22.5 percent from distance.

The Celtics are still trying to figure out how all these talented pieces fit together, but that's been far more challenging than most probably expected. Chemistry came quick last season when this starting group was thrown together in the aftermath of the late-summer trade that delivered Irving from Cleveland.

But we’ve only seen glimpses of that potential this year. And even as Irving and Hayward shake rust, younger players like Jaylen Brown have struggled to settle into their new roles. On Monday night, Stevens was left searching for a spark, particularly with Aron Baynes sidelined, and he went 12 deep overall.

Maybe that’s why Irving didn’t have an answer when asked about where Boston’s chemistry stood through four games.

"I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t mean that negatively. I just don’t know,” said Irving. "It’s four games. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer for that.”

Irving tried to offer better insight later when asked about Brown’s rough start to the season.

"It’s been a rough start for a few of us,” said Irving. "I try to think of the season as kind of sequential, when I say we just want to make it through October. I’m just trying to get through October, start a new season off where, obviously the excitement is now dwindling. Now we can finally just start playing basketball where the game becomes fun, which is a lot of thoughts that you could come into the season and what you expect to do, and then you come into the realization of where you are and that hurts sometimes. 

"You’ve just gotta play better, take a few hits on the chin and weather the storm. This is a game. The good thing is we have great teammates and great people in this locker room, and a great staff, and a great organization that believes in us. So coming in after games like this when you have guys still cheering up and getting everybody involved, it’s always great.”

Again, the Celtics are clearly better than what they’ve shown thus far, particularly amid this 2-2 start. And yet, like Bill Parcells so often reminded us, “You are what your record says you are.”

So in the early season NBA power rankings, Boston sits behind at least Toronto and Orlando.

"We're figuring [chemistry] out. It's a day-to-day thing and it's us understanding what we all need to do to be successful,” said Horford. "It takes time. There are times we look really good, there are times we don't look good at all. We just have to keep learning, hopefully winning and learning as opposed to losing. 

"Sometimes, these types of things have to happen for the group to react.”

Call it another wakeup call for a team that, with apologies to Williams’ post-draft follies, keeps hitting the snooze button.

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Five bold NBA predictions for the 2019-20 NBA season

Five bold NBA predictions for the 2019-20 NBA season

BOSTON -- With the Golden State dynasty a thing of the past now (we think) and with the newly-crowned NBA champion Toronto Raptors already poised to look like the Raptors of old (we know), there’s a lot of fluidity and uncertainty about this upcoming NBA season. 

Predictions about who will be the league’s MVP or Most Improved or Coach of the Year, run the gamut right now. 

But in reality, it’s the prop bet-like predictions that we wanna talk about and hear about, right? 

And those fall under the umbrella of bold predictions, something we are going to take a dive into right now with five can’t miss (we think) predictions that are going to be talked about, and/or debated, and/or picked apart this season (we know). 

Here are five bold NBA predictions for the upcoming season. 

BEN SIMMONS WILL MAKE A 3-POINTER … IN AN NBA GAME … SERIOUSLY

The time has come for Ben Simmons to do the unthinkable … make a 3-pointer. And no, we’re not talking about draining them in practice. Those don’t count. And draining one in a preseason game in a blowout win over a team from the Chinese Basketball Association? Nope. That doesn’t count, either. Simmons’ struggles shooting the ball has been well-documented. The lack of perimeter touch stands out in what is an otherwise extremely talented, well-balanced basketball game. Just as him making a 3-pointer in a preseason game sent tremors across the basketball landscape, him making one in an actual game after missing all 17 of his attempts thus far? The internet ain’t ready for that!

TORONTO WILL TRADE KYLE LOWRY

The initial thought was when the Raptors signed Kyle Lowry to a one-year, $31 million extension, it was to provide a little more security for the veteran guard. But the truth is, the deal only makes a more attractive trade chip for a title contender this season. Before the deal, Lowry was set to hit free agency in the summer of 2020. Knowing that, teams weren’t going to give the Raptors too much for an expiring contract. But the one-year extension means any deal for Lowry would likely return a pretty sizable haul in terms of talent and at least one potential draft pick, versus losing him for nothing next summer. A lot will depend on how the Raptors start the season, obviously. If they struggle as much as most anticipate, that’ll only ratchet up the likelihood that he’s moved on to a contending team that feels they are a veteran point guard away from competing for a title this spring. 

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS WILL ADVANCE TO THE WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

As much as the Warriors demise seems inevitable, the cupboard isn’t nearly as bare as some might think following Kevin Durant’s departure to Brooklyn. They still have Stephen Curry, one of the all-time great shooters in NBA history. Draymond Green is back, and continues to be the do-it-all baller that has consistently stepped up when needed in the postseason. Klay Thompson won’t be back until sometime in March from an ACL injury suffered in the playoffs last season, which will give him a month or so to get himself back in basketball shape for the playoffs. And let’s not forget about D’Angelo Russell, an all-star in Brooklyn last season who, along with Thompson’s return, gives the Warriors a quartet of high-impact performers heading into the postseason at a time when most of the elite teams out West are going to battle with talented tandems. This is by no means the Warriors team we’ve seen steamroll over foes in the past, but they still have quality talent that more likely than not, will be peaking when it matters most. 

NEW YORK WILL … NOT BE THE WORST TEAM IN THE NBA THIS SEASON

I know, missing out on the big names last summer while coming off of a 17-win campaign, doesn’t exactly sound like a team headed in the right direction. But as bad as the Knicks may be this season, there’s no question the Cleveland Cavaliers will be worse. The Celtics left the bulk of their rotation home, went on the road and faced a Cleveland team that suited up Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson … and beat the snot about Cleveland. And mind you, if Boston’s backups - most rookies mind you - could do that, how bad will it be when teams use their regular starters? So all the jokes about how bad the Knicks will be, yes, they’ll continue to flow in for sure. But hey, Knicks fans can point to one silver lining. As bad as it is for them, it’s gonna be a lot worse for the Cavs. 

BRAD STEVENS WILL BE NAMED COACH OF THE YEAR

For years, he has been talked about as one of the better coaches in the NBA. But most recently, NBA.com’s GM survey painted a very different picture with not a single GM voting Stevens as “best coach” despite the fact that a year ago 47 percent of them felt he was that guy. As much as this season is one of redemption for the Celtics players and organization, Stevens also has a lot to prove. He is in familiar territory with a roster that’s good, but not a title-contender; on paper at least. This team will play harder, more consistently than they did a year ago in part because of Kyrie Irving’s departure but also because these players more resemble the players that Stevens has been at his best with, in the past. And that’ll result in this team winning as many or more games than they did a year ago and in many ways, exceed expectations - a key ingredient for any coach on the cusp of winning the league’s Coach of the Year award.

Handicapping the NBA's Eastern Conference>>>

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Handicapping the NBA's Eastern Conference before the 2019-20 season

Handicapping the NBA's Eastern Conference before the 2019-20 season

The Eastern Conference hasn't been easy to figure out in recent seasons, as the conference has seen some massive power shifts in each of the past two offseasons.

During the 2018 offseason, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Los Angeles Lakers. The ensuing move left the Cavaliers as a bottom dweller in the conference while teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Toronto Raptors rose to the top. Meanwhile, the star-studded and deep Boston Celtics failed to live up to lofty expectations.

Now, the Raptors don't look as strong despite winning the 2019 NBA title. They lost Kawhi Leonard and their potential fall has created another opening atop the Eastern Conference. Will teams like the 76ers and Bucks step up into the No. 1 spot? And can a new-look Celtics squad rise up once again? The East will be unpredictable, but here's a look at the state of the conference ahead of the 2019-20 campaign.

Click here for Chris Forsberg and A. Sherrod Blakely's Eastern Conference expectations>>>