Through three-plus games, the Celtics in many ways resembled the championship contender nearly everyone expects them to be.
Sure, their defense wasn’t quite where it was last year, but their mistakes on that end seemed rectifiable. They even seemed somewhat justifiable given their impressive offensive numbers and deliberate choice to play fast.
On Monday night, however, that defensive effort was even worse. Much worse. When the Bulls steamrolled the Celtics, it left a puzzled fan base with more questions than answers through four games. Would the real Boston Celtics please stand up?
What’s real and what’s not real? What’s a fluke and what’s not a fluke?
1) The Celtics are 19th in points allowed, at 115.3 per game.
The Celtics may not be the NBA’s premier defensive team like they were last year. That’s OK, as long as they continue to dazzle offensively, make steady strides defensively and peak collectively at the right time. They need to be elite defensively in the playoffs, and practicing proper habits is certainly important.
They have such terrific individual defenders that their team defense will inevitably get back to where it was. There’s no reason to hit the panic button quite yet. If the trend continues, and they’re still in the middle of the pack in December, then it’s fair to wonder what went wrong.
For now, enjoy the offensive fireworks and games in the 110’s and 120’s that the NBA doesn’t mind in the slightest.
Nothing seemed to go right for us after the first quarter, as the Bulls pulled away with a 120-102 finish. pic.twitter.com/stN6o19LSa— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 25, 2022
2) Their 3-point shooting is elite and can consistently be trusted.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Celtics are averaging 15.8 3-pointers on 40.8 attempts a night – both tops in the NBA. Is that sustainable?
Yes, it is, but with a caveat. The Celtics will certainly have some off nights, but they can live by the 3 throughout the season. However, they need to make sure they don’t settle for 3’s.
For instance, 16 of Al Horford’s 19 shots are from beyond the arc. He’s been steady overall, but that’s probably too high a percentage. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are thriving attacking the rim, and Malcolm Brogdon and Noah Vonleh are contributing there as well.
So, as long as the Celtics continue to work the ball around and get high-percentage looks from 3, they’ll be just fine.
Verdict: Not a fluke.
3) Jayson Tatum can win MVP.
Of course he can. He’s Jayson Tatum.
But seriously, this seems like his best opportunity yet. If the Celtics get the 1 or 2 seed, and Tatum averages 30-plus, he’ll probably take home the hardware.
He looks even more decisive and in command than last year, and his finishing has reached another level. For someone who has a tendency to start slowly, he looks quite elite to open the season.
Verdict: Not a fluke.
4) They’re battling, but they look outmatched trying to rebound and defend bigs.
The Celtics are 26th in the league in rebounds per game (40.3) and 28th in defensive rebounds per game (30.5). That sounds about right.
Individually, they’re doing everything they can. Tatum is averaging 8.3 boards, Marcus Smart and Brogdon rebound well for their size and Vonleh is scrapping. Even so, it’s clear there’s an underlying, legitimate issue here.
Fortunately for the Celtics, they will get Robert Williams back, and he will still be very good at basketball. But, in the meantime, this is a legitimate concern.
Joel Embiid had 26 points and 15 boards, Bam Adebayo was a game-high plus 20, Wendell Carter Jr. had a double-double and Nikola Vucevic put up a Wilt Chamberlain-esque stat line of 18 points, 23 boards and 5 assists. That’s enough of a sample size to know something might be wrong.
They’re asking a lot of Tatum and Brown in the paint, and it may wear them down throughout the course of a season. Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin aren’t panaceas, but they might have to play a bit more out of necessity.
Verdict: Not a fluke.
5) Malcolm Brogdon and Jaylen Brown are struggling from the floor.
The Celtics have had great success from 3 as a team, but Brogdon can’t say the same individually. He’s shooting 26.7 percent from 3-point range, which would be by far a career-low. His career mark is 37.5 percent, so chances are, he’ll regress to the mean.
He’s also hitting a career-low 41.9 percent of his shots from the floor. Brogdon has thrived attacking the basket and dishing to his teammates, but it’s fair to expect more from him as a jump shooter. As he continues to adapt to his surroundings, those numbers will almost certainly go up.
Brown, meanwhile, is shooting a career-low 32.1 percent from 3 and 46.9 percent from the floor – his lowest mark since 2018-19. Those numbers will likely go up as well, but at the moment, neither player is shooting the way they typically do.
They’ve only played four games, so now isn’t the time to fret. Just like the defense will likely round into form, so too will Brogdon and Brown’s shooting.