The Celtics lost their first game of 2024.
They trailed throughout their game in Oklahoma City last week, briefly taking a lead before halftime before going down 18 to begin the fourth. Boston stormed back to within a possession over the final nine minutes, pulling off a 27-11 run and creating an open three for Kristaps Porziņģis with no timeouts; he narrowly stepped on the line, the Thunder hit free throws and secured victory, but back in Boston, panic didn’t arise.
Most fans shrugged and acknowledged Oklahoma City’s clear talent, matchup difficulties and the solid job the Celtics did adjusting to it. Boston took care of business afterwards, pummeling the Jazz on a 10-0 run to begin Friday and never looked back, then overcome a bad Derrick White game and Porziņģis injury to beat the Pacers handily.
“I like how in today’s practice, we came in and worked on exactly what I thought was dead on to what we need to do to be better,” Joe Mazzulla said with his own pause, acknowledging things could change in a month.
“To have more options to play our best. We’ve been good thus far, but we’re 30 some odd games in. We’ve all lived this, this is a journey, we’re gonna have our ups-and-down from here on out, but we’re very capable and I think we’ve shown that.”
That’s the question still facing Celtics fans into a new calendar year. In 2023, Boston finished 57-21, down slightly from 60-22 and falling short in the playoffs of the Finals run they pulled off in 2022. That, along with assembling the most talent in the league last summer, led to some dramatic reactions to the few losses that marked the beginning of the 2023-24 schedule.
The Minnesota loss following a 5-0 start became a repudiation on the team’s late execution, many scrutinized Jaylen Brown’s final shot. Losing in Philadelphia two nights later added to the criticism with Brown and Jayson Tatum combining for 27 points, and Joe Mazzulla unleashing a retort to The Globe's Gary Washburn’s seven-year obsession with too many threes.
“We’re very far from being a finished product or a team like, this is it. We’re very far from that still,” Porziņģis said in November, already understanding the experience in Boston. “We can still beat any team in the league, and we truly believe that. It’s a long season, there are gonna be ups-and-downs, and there’s going to be three games where we’re gonna look insane and then three games where, oh my god, it’s falling apart, and all the fans are gonna overreact probably, but it’s never as high or as low as it seems.”
The Celtics hadn’t earned the benefit of the doubt at that point though, with slip-ups against the Pacers, Magic, Thunder and other bad teams still haunting from last year. Those cost Boston the one seed, and while Mazzulla saw some silver lining in avoiding Miami and Mike Budenholzer’s first-round fate, avoiding playing down to the competition, crafting a defensive identity and building on leads would play large roles in finding more consistency this season and earning trust from fans. The Celtics improved to +18.0 per 100 possessions in crunch time through their first 17 tests this year, winning 11 in another sore spot from last year.
Games that resembled ones the team would’ve lost last season piled up through the schedule, hanging on at Indiana as the lead slipped in the second half on Saturday, falling behind by 21 points before halftime against the Pistons on their record losing streak, facing the pesky Magic in back-to-back Magic games while injured and facing a Grizzlies team annihilated by injuries on the road in November. Boos rained down at TD Garden before the Celtics exited to halftime, the first this season after they became routine in the arena between 2021-2022. By the second half, jubilation returned to the stands during the comeback.
“I loved the contrast from especially the atmosphere from the first to second half,” Porziņģis said after. “The best part about it is, it’s not as much maybe about making the shots or not, but just us playing hard and that’s what the fans appreciated. That was really cool to see.”
Whether finding pockets for rest, motivating and empowering the bench, adding wrinkles like defensive zone looks for when the season could grow stale into the winter and continuing to stress the little things, Mazzulla found ways to keep the team on track nightly. He found areas of growth too, going from shrugging off blown leads in wins as inevitable last year to finding value in running up the score against the Bulls to reach the In-Season Tournament. Every game provided learning opportunities, he said, and each win would look differently, assuring individual players who might’ve struggled in any moment.
Most importantly, everyone appears bought in top-to-bottom. Any divergence last season from the game plan, Brown questioning how many threes the team took midway through last season, Marcus Smart stressing Mazzulla needing to make adjustments, Grant Williams losing his role and Malcolm Brogdon discontent with a lacking defensive emphasis, became points of contention among fans. Reasons to not believe. The Celtics haven’t provided many this year, but the same expectation remains — championship or bust.
“We want to be perfect, we want to win every single game, we want to win every game you’re supposed to, but that’s just not how it goes,” Mazzulla said last week. “The OKC game, we battled back, the Philly game at Philly, we battled back. Guys have been out, we plugged guys in and we look the same. Detroit game, we’re losing and we come back ... having the expectation of, it’s not going to go your way all the time and when it’s not, how quickly can we get back to being our best?”
That led to the shakier losses this year — overtime in Charlotte and San Francisco, a relative no-show at Orlando on Black Friday and a poor showing at Indiana for the IST — feeling like the end of the world. The Celtics have won 13-of-15 since, calming concerns, and while they’ll inevitably return following the next bad loss, Boston set itself up mentally to prepare them. Some fans highlighted the Detroit game for weeks as the Pistons’ losing streak mounted. Watch it come to an end in Boston, they groaned. It didn’t.
Does that provide hope for a less angst-filled experience watching in 2024? Many will reasonably hold out on a greater sample size of success, and greater stakes, but it’s hard to imagine a better response to past problems than what the team achieved to end 2023.
“I don’t want to sit here and say we have it figured out, and that we’re not going to take a lead or we’re not going to take a team lightly, because it’s going to happen,” Mazzulla said. “It has happened in small pockets. I think the difference this year is the ability to just get out of it quicker. You see it all the time in the NBA, blown leads, difficult times, teams struggle, let a team go on a 15-0 run or whatever the case may be. I think we’re just not staying in that space longer, it’s there, we acknowledge it and we move on as fast as we can.”