The darkest hour is just before the dawn. After a 1-4 west coast trip ended with a familiar refrain in Portland--dig a deep first half hole, play desperately to catch up, and lose in the final two minutes--this seems to be rock bottom for a Celtics team that was aspiring to raise a championship trophy in July. Gone are the familiar excuses of “it’s early” and “guys are coming back from injury.” With a 7-6 record, Toronto and Milwaukee boat racing out to 12-1 and 10-3 respectively, and the 76ers trading for Jimmy Butler on Saturday, the time is now.
After the game, Al Horford talked about his slow start and Marcus Smart addressing the team:
Al Horford says that after the game in the locker room, Marcus Smart addressed the team and said, “There’s no more excuses.”— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) November 12, 2018
“There’s no excuse,” says Al Horford, “We need to play better. I need to play better, and (we) just get back to the way we can play and we can dominate.”— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 12, 2018
In his first two seasons in Boston, Horford has been steady as a rock for the Celtics, but his unHorford-like poor shooting start has been indicative of the team-wide yips. He’s shooting 27.6% from behind the arc (his lowest since joining the team) on 4.5 3FGA’s (his highest total since joining the team).
It’s not surprising that Smart was the one to speak up after the Celtics’ 100-94 loss to the Trailblazers. He’s the longest standing member and the heart of the team. There’s some speculation that Smart could enter the starting lineup after getting the nod in Phoenix in the 2nd half, but we’re probably not there yet. Irving-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Horford was always going to be a work in progress as last year’s post-season youngsters figured out their role next to rehabbing All-Stars and I doubt that Brad Stevens would pull the plug on that this early in the season.
However, they do now have a sense of urgency as the team heads back to Boston for a three-game homestand that includes rematches with the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz:
Tatum: “We might be just a little bit too cool when we start. When we come back, we’re in desperation mode, we play like that the whole time, we look pretty good.”— Tom Westerholm (@Tom_NBA) November 12, 2018
Jaylen Brown used the phrase "too cool” in Phoenix as well.
Tatum: "It’s just a matter of stopping guys. That’s what we’re known for, so we have to get back to that."— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) November 12, 2018
Tatum tied his career high with 27 points, but note his awareness that the Celtics’ identity is rooted on defense. They’re still the league’s best, but they’ve slipped of late, allowing 100+ points in seven straight games.
The night’s most interesting comments may have come from Kyrie Irving. Irving has had a bit of an awakening on this trip. He’s averaging 27.3 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists and looked like a max player that Danny Ainge would re-sign next summer. However, he had some curious thoughts after dropping 21 and five steals in the loss:
Kyrie Irving: “We needed this [bad road trip]. We’re not as good as we think we are. That’s really what it comes down to. … For us to be special, we just have to get through some challenges."— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) November 12, 2018
Kyrie Irving: "We’re not as good as we think we are. I said it at the beginning of the season. The excitement is done. It’s real basketball now."— Tom Westerholm (@Tom_NBA) November 12, 2018
Kyrie: "Right now I think it would be nice if we had someone that was a 15-year vet, a 14-year vet that could kind of help us race along the regular season and understand it’s a long marathon rather than just a full-on sprint."— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) November 12, 2018
Presumably, Horford is that vet and frankly, he’s that vet, too (and maybe even Marcus Morris to some extent). It could be Morse code to the front office to make a trade or just some venting after another nailbiter tilted the wrong way. Regardless, it’s been rough start to what was a promising season and a macrocosm of what’s been happening in the first and second quarters so far. Brad Stevens recognizes it:
“I’ve got to do a better job of making sure we start games well,” Brad Stevens says after the game.— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 12, 2018
Brad Stevens: “We’re not a well-coached team right now. That’s pretty obvious.”— Sean Highkin (@highkin) November 12, 2018
That’s harsh self-criticism for the usually even keel Stevens, but he’s not exactly wrong. Over their last five games, they have a NetRtg of -17.4 and been outscored by 42 points. Over their next seventeen games, only two are against teams currently over .500. This could be a productive stretch of growing consistency for the Celtics...or more rocky road of cliche quotes and player- and coach-speak.