At halftime, the Celtics flipped a switch. After falling behind the Pacers by as many as 30 points in the first half, Boston outscored Indiana 69-46, but ultimately fell short 117-112 to fall 0-3 on their home stand and 1-5 overall.
But at least the Celtics flipped a switch.
“I’m not really concerned in the sense that it was the first half that we really got outplayed from an effort standpoint,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said of his team’s poor start Wednesday night. “It would be concerning if we didn’t play a completely different style in the second half. We just have a choice to make: what team do we want to be?”
For most fans, the expectation was that after the team returned to TD Garden after a disappointing close to the California portion of their 4-2 road trip, some home cooking would get them out of their shooting slump and restore what was once a historic offense. Their defense was already improving and nearing the championship level standard they set last season. If Mazzulla could pair the two and seamlessly reintroduce Robert Williams back into the fray, the Celtics would be that team again that started out the season 21-5.
Just to put that into perspective, in November:— Bill Sy (@deliberatepix) December 22, 2022
Celtics on open shots: 211-413 (51.1%)
Celtics on wide open shots: 171-358 (47.8%)
That hasn’t happened. After dropping two straight to the Magic and last night’s close-but-no-cigar comeback versus the Pacers, Boston is not just a team mired in missed shots and poor execution, but one also questioning their effort and focus against teams that they should be banking wins against. But again, seemingly, they flipped a switch.
For all the handwringing over low energy, lack of physicality, and a losing streak, for all the boos that rained down from the rafters when the Celtics were piling up turnovers and missing everything around the rim, the team isn’t worried. As Malcolm Brogdon put it after his former team manhandled the Celtics in the first half, it’s more disappointment than concern.
There’s certainly a herky jerkiness to how they’ve been playing. The free-flowing, free-of-concern state of mind, freewheeling style that fueled the nine-game winning streak has been replaced by a twitchy, disjointed shadow of a team. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s the weight of expectation after such a strong start. Maybe it’s that disappointment that Brogdon is talking about compounded with every loss.
“We gotta get back to having fun. We’re playing a little timid, a little tight,” Jayson Tatum said after a one game absence on Sunday. “Basketball is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be loose. I get a sense that we want to make every shot, myself included. Our body language when we miss shots and stuff like that, it’s contagious.”
So is winning and there’s proof of concept in what President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens has built. They were never going to be as on fire as they were in October and November from behind the arc, but they’re still a team of above average shooters that can all drive-and-kick off the dribble and create for others. The defense has gone from a 114.5 defensive rating in October to 111.6 in November to 106.9 points per 100 possessions this month. The breadth of the entire regular season still has Boston second in offense (116.5), now seventh in defense (110.6), and second in net rating (5.9) behind the Cavaliers (6.5).
“We are where we are. You have to rely on who our guys are as people and you have to rely on the process of what we’re trying to build. I would be more concerned if it was two halves, but it was one,” Mazzulla said.
Last night specifically, after the Celtics hit just 3-of-15 from behind the arc, Jayson Tatum took it upon himself to consistently attack the paint and get to the line; he shot 13 free throws on the night, his fourth highest total of the year. Boston grabbed 25 offensive rebounds — Robert Williams had seven alone — and converted them into 32 second chance points. And yes, the shooting came back to form. Al Horford and Sam Hauser hit a pair of threes, Brown and Tatum hit some in the clutch, and the team finished 10-of-26 from 3 after halftime. It was twenty-four minutes that reminded everybody what this team is capable of.
“I know our guys as people and I know they’re character. We’re going through a little bit of a hard stage. That’s part of the NBA,” Mazzulla said. “It’s also hard the way we played at the beginning of the year; when you set such a high standard, it’s hard to play to that all the time. We have to learn how to make that standard a habit.”
The Celtics has four more games remaining on this homestand, including the Christmas Day game and their first against the Milwaukee Bucks and a rematch against Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and the LA Clippers with revenge in mind. We’ll just have to see if the switch remains flipped.