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This blip isn’t Boston Celtics basketball, but it’s still just a blip

After a dominant November, the Celtics are trudging through a tough December schedule.

Boston Celtics v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

In an exclusive interview with NBC Boston’s Chris Forsberg, former Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge said, “I think one of the most frustrating things about the team, last year and this year, is that every day you’re looking at the injury report to see who’s playing. It’s been one guy after another. When you’re missing two or three key players each night, it takes a toll.”

Eight players have averaged 20 or more minutes for Boston this season. That’s the now seldom seen starting five of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams with a second unit featuring Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, and Grant Williams. So far, here’s the attendance record for the eight-man rotation:

Brown has missed half of the games with his strained hamstring, Timelord was out for a six-game chunk, and Richardson has missed a handful here and there. Let’s also not forget that Brown and Horford are returning from lengthy stays in the league’s health and safety protocols from the preseason, too. There’s obviously some truth to Ainge’s suggestion that fans should be a little patient and judge the team when they’re fully healthy, but 1) teams are never fully healthy and 2) even when hurt, we’ve seen the potential of this team, albeit in flashes.

Twenty-six games in, there are three distinct acts to the 2021-2022 season so far:

  • pre-Smartgate: 104.6 OffRtg, 110.3 DefRtg, -5.7 NetRtg, 2-5 record
  • post team meeting/dinner/gathering: 106.1 OffRtg, 101.5 DefRtg, 4.6 NetRtg 10-5 record
  • west coast road trip: 122.0 OffRtg, 121.3 DefRtg, 0.7 NetRtg, 1-3 record

Ime Udoka admitted that with the team limping into the regular season, those first seven games were part of an extended preseason with the team getting used to new systems on offense and defense. It showed early and after Marcus Smart called out the team after a demoralizing home loss to the Bulls, the team seemed to get over the learning curve. From November 2nd to December 2nd, the Celtics boasted the third best defense of the month and turned to fixing their issues on the other side of the ball. And as frustrating as this 1-3 west coast trip has been so far, the reemergence of Tatum and Boston’s shotmaking has at least been a bright spot.

Out west, Tatum has put together three consecutive games of 30-plus points (just narrowly missing out on a fourth against the Clippers with 29). He’s again become the picture of efficiency, shooting 51% from the field, hitting 42% from behind the arc, and averaging nine free throw attempts a game.

And finally — FINALLY — water has reached its level with the Celtics’ shooting.

Celtics Open Shooting

. Closest Defender FGA EFG% 3PA 3P%
. Closest Defender FGA EFG% 3PA 3P%
First 7 games Open 27.7 53.4 13.9 36.1
Wide Open 24.1 53.8 19.7 34.8
Next 15 Open 25.3 48.2 15.3 32.3
Wide Open 19.9 53.9 16.1 34.4
West coast trip Open 30.3 57.9 18.8 42.7
Wide Open 15.8 56.3 12.3 24.7

As frustrating as November was, the Celtics seem to be trending in the right direction as a whole. Of late, they’re generating more open looks and hitting a higher percentage of them. They won’t maintain this pace of 122 points per 100 possessions, but their offensive identity has at least taken shape and players seem to be getting comfortable with where they’re getting their shots.

As ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry points out, it’s not all bad in Boston if you consider the recent big picture look of how they compare with the rest of the league:

Over the last fifteen games, Boston has been just above average on both sides of the (new) ball (and new rules). The popular narrative this week is that the recent skid in the Pacific time zone is somehow indicative of systemic failure within the franchise. The players aren’t listening to their Udoka. Brad Stevens put together a roster that doesn’t fit. Tatum and Brown aren’t leaders you can build around. The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn suggested that the team had “no clue” how’d they perform game-to-game.

It’s an overreaction.

The west coast trip so far has been four games of anomalies. Whether it’s both teams going full firestarter in Utah, the Celtics carrying over that hot-shooting in Portland, playing a Lakers team on four days rest, or the turnoverfest against the Clippers, it’s hard not to take any of those outcomes with a grain of salt. There will be 10-15 games every season that just don’t make sense in the larger tapestry of the entire year and stranger still that they’d all happen on one road trip.

After the loss to the Lakers, Tatum said, “this may be the second time all season I think that we didn’t necessarily play harder than the other team.” I believe that. As tough as that 2-5 start was, they were battling, sometimes in overtime, sometimes in double overtime. But something clicked after that Bulls game when they rattled off ten wins in fifteen games. Their defense gave them their identity and patience has paid off with their shooting on the up and up. Yes, the defensive numbers have slipped, but let’s chalk up some of that to human nature. When you’re watching Payton Pritchard put on a show in front of his hometown or Tatum score the first fourteen points in the house his favorite player built, there’s a natural tendency to sit back a bit. And yes, as a fan, when we see that, it’s frustrating, but we’ve seen this team put it together not just for a full 48 minutes, but more importantly, for a full month.