bY: jAMES hOLAS
Last night, the Celtics throttled the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics’ collection of versatile wings did versatile wing things, with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward combining for 43 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals, and 5 made threes. Kyrie Irving dashed and dazzled his way to 17 points (on just 8 shots), 7 dimes, and 2 steals. Big men Al Horford and Aron Baynes demolished their counterparts, racking up 19 points, 19 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 4 threes, and made life miserable for rookie Horford doppelganger Wendell Carter (and any Bulls guard brave enough to challenge the duo). The bench guards, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, chipped in 20 points and provided defense and energy, helping hold Zach lavine (3-11, 10 points) to 16 points below his average.
After a slow start (Boston trailed 24-19 after one quarter of action), the Celtics put their full breadth of of their potential on display en route to battering the Bulls, 111-82. All appeared right in the land of Boston basketball.
But taking a step back, we see that things aren’t exactly coming up roses for the gang in green. Prior to their tilt with the 4-11 injury decimated Bulls, the Celtics had misfired their way through a 1-4 road trip, leaving them at 7-6 and near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories: 25th in points per game and offensive rating, 26th in true shooting percentage, and a woeful 29th in field goal percentage. More troubling, a team loaded with snipers--Irving, Hayward, Horford, and Jayson Tatum--apparently forgot how to shoot. Boston was top three in threes attempted per game (good!), yet they were a mediocre 15th in three point percentage (bad).
After a stirring run to the eastern conference finals without the services of its two big contract stars, Boston’s current inconsistent mediocrity is a sobering reality check. Were pundits wrong to crown the Celtics? Is it time for Celtic fans to panic?
The short answer to both of these is “not necessarily”. The videos of Kyrie dominating summer pick up and Hayward sweating and shooting--coupled with the explosive potential both Tatum and third year swingman Jaylen Brown showed in the playoffs--had both fans and analysts alike envisioning an immediate basketball juggernaut. That juggernaut still may be lurking, but there are a few things to sort out first.
The Reeducation of Kyrie and Hayward
Five minutes of NBA action do not a season make, so this is Gordon Hayward’s first real action, not just as a Celtic, but as his post-gross leg injury self. His “setback” this summer wasn’t minor; Hayward lost valuable court and conditioning time after having the hardware that was holding his ankle together removed due to pain issues. These early season games are part training camp and part rehab for the 9th year wing. With an early minutes restriction and the plethora of players that coach Brad Stevens has at his disposal, Hayward has at times looked both like a guy dipping his toe back in the NBA after a major injury (2-10 shooting, 4 points in a one point loss to the Pacers) and the guy Danny Ainge inked to a $128 million deal (18 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds as Boston handed the Bucks their first loss of the year).
Irving came into camp healthy, but it obviously took him a few games to get acclimated to his team again and get his “NBA” legs back. The Celtics started 4-2 with Irving averaging just 14 points and shooting a paltry 24 percent from deep. Kyrie Irving is one of the most potent scorers in the league; his uncharacteristic passivity--less than 15 shots a game through the opening six games--was his way of trying to get the rest of the team involved, ensuring others ate before he did. But an aggressive Irving is an effective Irving. Since taking only five shots and scoring three points in Boston’s 20 point drubbing of the Pistons, Irving has been scintillating--over 26 points per game--while making half of his eight treys a night. He’s been chipping in on the boards and finding his teammates all year, averaging just under 5 boards and almost 6 assists per game. Even after his snooze-worthy start, Irving joins Steph Curry this season as the only players averaging at least 20.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5 assists, and shooting over 41 percent from 3.
But even with Irving playing at a high level, Boston returned home with a single win in five tries on its recent road trip...a 22 point comeback against the inferior Suns. Kyrie averaged 27-5-5 and was shooting 47% from 3 on the trip, but he can’t do it alone; which leads us to the next issue:
Youth Taking Lumps
Losing Hayward and Kyrie definitely lowered the ceiling for last year’s Celts, but the silver lining was that Jaylen, Jayson, and Terry Rozier got to test the limits of their game. Presented with nigh-unlimited shots and touches, all three showed tons of exciting promise, and all three were even better in the playoffs. Rozier, especially, thrived in the playoffs, averaging over 16-5-5 and routinely embarrassing his opposite number. Jaylen and Jayson both averaged around 18 points and 5 rebounds a night in the postseason, defended across the spectrum, and both looked (at times) like they had the chops to be potential future all stars.
Kyrie and Hayward returning shifts that whole dynamic. The youngsters are being asked to come back better while playing more complementary roles, with mixed results. Rozier and Brown in particular seem to be struggling with finding where their attacking styles fit into the flowing framework of Boston’s egalitarian offense. Rozier is still canning threes at a tidy rate and blanketing opposing guards, but he’s also still not very efficient (finishing or from midrange), and still misses easy reads and open teammates as he drives. Brown has been both over-aggressive and too passive on occasion, and he’s lost his shooting touch along with his rhythm. Brown came into this year a 37.8% career three point shooter, but is making a measly 29.1% of his attempts this season.
Tatum’s issues are of another vein; he seems to be struggling to fill out-sized expectations. The 20 year old flashed some insane shot-making in the playoffs, and a big show was made of Tatum working out with Kobe over the summer. So far this season his raw scoring and rebounding numbers are up, and he’s regained his three point stroke while on the ill-fated road trip. He was shooting 32% from three through the first 8 games, and has made 47% of the six threes he’s taking since then.
But after making almost 50% of his attempts inside of the arc last season, Tatum is shooting only 41% on twos this year, and the culprit is the amount of long twos he's tossing up from midrange. He still struggles with ball control on his drives, and the offense too often grinds to a halt while he tries to dribble his way into a shot. Last season, Tatum was a cog in the machine who could generate his own offense when needed. This season, it seems that Tatum is hunting his shot more than necessary.
Coach Brad Stevens has proven to be adept at getting full buy-in from his players, and all three of these young talents are, by all accounts, hardworking and eager to fit into this winning situation. It’s far too early to panic, but for Boston to to reach its full potential, all three of these young pieces have to figure out where they comfortably fit.
Bad %$#& Luck
It’s pretty simple: open shots = good offense. Brad Stevens has been preaching more ball movement and attacking the paint, and the results are awesome. The Celtics, per NBA tracking data, are generating 19.4 wide open (the closest defender is 6 feet or more away) threes a game, second only to the Bucks. For some reason, though, they simply aren't making them. Boston is shooting only 36% on those looks, good (bad?) for 20th in the NBA.
A team with a flotilla of capable shooters should progress to the mean in this regard. Al Horford has shot 37.4% from deep over the last 3 years, and he’s currently making only 30% of his bombs. Gordon Hayward is career 36.8% three point shooter who’s making 31.4% of them this year, and we’ve already talked about Jaylen’s three point struggles. In total, that’s three players who take over 12 threes a game, struggling mightily. As the season progresses, expect these three to climb back to their normal shooting splits; even if Mook Morris stops being 3rd Splash bro (he’s making a ridiculous 48% of his 5 three attempts a game), the Celtics SHOULD be a much better shooting team in March than they are now.
It’s been 14 games. Last year, the Pistons were 10-3 early. The Sixers were 17-19 on December 31st. Every team is different, and the time of incubation needed for teams to find their respective stride is an unknown quantity. Boston has the ingredients. It’s up to Brad Stevens to construct the proper lineups and instill the proper mentality for the Green Machine to start churning through the competition.
This iteration of the Celtics is still trying to find itself, and that’s okay. Will Boston use the 1-4 road trip as a line of demarcation? Will we look back at the early uneven play as a turning point, or is this slow start and their creaky offense an ominous sign of things to come?
James Holas is a guest contributor for The Up&Under. You can find more of his work on Real Ball Insiders, Basketball Breakdown, and Dunk Tales Pod.