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The razor’s edge of success and failure

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

After another double overtime loss to one of the East’s best teams, it’s easy to dwell on the negative as the Celtics drop to 2-4 on the 2021-2022 season. But after a dismal shooting display and down two starters in D.C., Boston was up six in the first OT with just over two minutes to go. This was a winnable game late.

And then the wheels came off in an all too familiar way that has carried over from last season’s disappointment.

In his defense, Ime Udoka is spinning so many plates right now as a first time head coach of a relatively young team. After vowing to put Jaylen Brown in better positions to get going after publicly criticizing his energy on Wednesday, Brown responded and scored 34 points, including a go-ahead bucket towards the end of regulation. Jayson Tatum put up 27, but hit just 10 of his 32 field goal attempts and had more turnovers (4) than assists (3).

Udoka knows that the Celtics will only go as far his two young stars take them, but he’ll need production from his bench, too. Four Celtics starters played over 40 minutes Friday night, including 41 from 35-year-old Al Horford, but Aaron Nesmith hasn’t played in three straight games now and Payton Pritchard was a DNP-CD on Wednesday. In training camp, finding minutes for such a deep roster was an issue, but the pendulum has swung the other way with Udoka relying heavily on his best players.

“It’s a balance of keeping them mentally fresh and active and what we want to do and keeping them physically ready,” Udoka said. The coaching staff will adjust coming practice schedules after leaning so much on their veterans through the first six games.

The loss did however feature a standout game from Josh Richardson who signed a one-year extension this summer and is considered an important veteran addition that should eventually be a key rotation player moving forward.

“We’re a good team. We’re almost there. I feel like once we get a little more continuity on the offensive side of the ball, I think that, hopefully, we’ll finish out these games a little quicker,” Richardson said after scoring a season-high 18 points. “Sometimes, there’s an adjustment period. No need to panic.”

On a night when the Celtics held a top-10 NBA offense to an 95.0 offensive rating on 36.5% shooting, Boston made just two of their twenty-six three-pointers and went to the free throw line eleven fewer times. It was a cruel anomaly that will later get lost in the aggregate of the 82-game regular season, but hard numbers that will notch this game in the loss column and not as a win nonetheless. Despite that, Udoka is encouraged. Even though the Celtics got swept in the mini home-and-home series with the Wizards, the second loss did not draw the same ire as Wednesday’s at in front of the TD Garden faithful.

“Given the big picture overall, we defended extremely well. It was night and day effort-wise from the other game. They scored less tonight in double overtime than they did in regulation the other night. I felt like we played well defensively. We kept mentioning that the shots are going to fall, but it didn’t get much better in the second half,” Udoka said.

Let’s consider that big picture. Boston’s confusion with their “switch everything” defense that plagued the preseason seems to be clearing up. They’re communicating better and being more judicial with putting their big men on the perimeter.

Brown, Tatum, and Smart are shooting nearly ten percentage points worse from behind the arc with the team shooting more 3’s than in the history of the franchise. That should normalize or as former head coach Brad Stevens would say, “water finds its level.”

It’s a common refrain from last season, but Boston’s preferred starting lineup of Brown, Tatum, Horford, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams (the latter two missing the game with illnesses) have only played two games together. Both were losses, but it’s unfair to call a team inconsistent that’s never benefitted from consistency.

So, while it may seem like the Celtics are drowning with no land in sight (three of their next nine games are on the road), no one in the locker room or the front office is sounding the alarm. In a visit with 98.5 The SportsHub’s Toucher & Rich on Friday, Stevens acknowledged all the concerns surrounding the team, but remarked that the Celtics could easily be 4-1 or 1-4. With such a small sample size, public perception and the media narrative can swing wildly from the team being Eastern Conference contender to play-in game participant. But for all the hand wringing, the team is steadfast in their belief that their turning a corner.

“Obviously, it’s another tough loss, but I liked our energy and effort. It was much different. Early game. On the road. Team’s that hot. We came out and played particularly well. We didn’t even shoot the ball well, but we still battled. We gotta keep that up and get ready to battle again on Monday,” Brown said.