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Process over results: It’s not how you start...

It’s how you finish. A gentle reminder to have a growth mindset with the Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics Media Day Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

It seems like a good time to roll out my annual request to hold off judging this team until we have a better sample size and the team has figured out how to play together. I call it the “20 game rule” (roughly 1/4th of the season) and as always it is a guideline, not really a rule (you can root for the team however you like, even if that means stressing yourself out over every missed rotation).

As the years go by, I have learned that even that 20 game sample size isn’t really enough to decide what a team is made of.

Here are a few numbers to consider for context. Let’s compare the starts of the last 3 seasons. To make pulling the data easy, I just filtered on October and November numbers.

2021-22 season (Udoka’s first) 21 games:

  • Offensive Rating: 106.0
  • Defensive Rating: 104.9
  • Net Rating: 1.1 (13th in the league)

2022-23 season (Mazzulla’s first) 22 games:

  • Offensive Rating: 121.6
  • Defensive Rating: 112.4
  • Net Rating: 9.1 (1st in the league)

2023-24 season (current) 7 games:

  • Offensive Rating: 117.1
  • Defensive Rating: 105.6
  • Net Rating: 11.5 (1st in the league)

If we judged the Udoka season based on the first few months, we would have blown everything up and traded the Jays to start over. Instead, the team figured things out and went all the way to the NBA Finals.

If we judged last season by the first two months there would be a statue of Joe Mazzulla outside the TD Garden already. The team was very good, but came up short at the end.

This year the team is putting up even better overall numbers, in large part due to some very lopsided wins over the Pacers and Wizards that are skewing the small sample size of data.

So while I can preach waiting 20 games before making declarative statements of the team, even that isn’t likely to tell us the whole story.

What I do think you can do is start formulating hypothesizes and asking questions about the team that will hopefully get clarified as the rest of the regular season plays out.

A small sample of what I’ve been pondering through the first 7 games:

  • Tatum looks more dedicated to using his strength and attacking the basket to generate points. Can he keep that up or will he default back into old habits over time?
  • Brown seems to be struggling with his place and role on the team. Is that true or has he just had a few rough quarters? If it is true, what will the team do to utilize him best going forward?
  • Horford doesn’t seem as sharp when coming off the bench. Can he adapt over time or should the Celtics consider starting double bigs again?
  • Porzingis and Holiday have already shown a lot of the reasons why everyone was excited to add them to the Celtics, but they aren’t without flaws and it will take a while to figure out how the overall scheme optimizes them and the Jays.
  • Derrick White: Don’t change anything, you are still perfect.
  • The bench looks rough. That’s not too surprising given the lack of experienced vets (beyond Horford). Who will stand out and which positions need to be addressed from outside the team?
  • Joe Mazzulla seems more comfortable in his own skin this year, but is he pushing the right buttons? I like the way he’s experimenting with post-ups, full court press, using Holiday to guard centers, and generally being unafraid to try new things. I would like it if he called more timely time outs, but he’s got a philosophy that he’s sticking to and it could pay off in the long run. How adaptable is he going to be and will he be able to ditch a strategy that should work (based on numbers) but doesn’t work on the court?
  • When the pressure ramps up, can the Celtics execute an effective offense or will they fall into bad habits and get stuck in the mud again?

These are all things I’m keeping an eye on and I’m sure there are dozens more that I’ve missed. What I’m not going to do is panic or write declarative statements that I would feel embarrassed about reading later (hey, I’m talking as someone who learned the hard way over and over again - kind of like the Celtics!).

One step at a time. Let’s see how this team rebounds from losing their first two games.

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