When the Boston Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving in August 2017, we all wondered what a team molded in the All-Star point guard’s image might look like after emerging from the shadow of LeBron James, and yet this mediocre outfit bears no resemblance to the one we would have pictured.
The Celtics own the NBA’s second-ranked defense and 26th-ranked offense, a far cry from what we imagined from one of the game’s great scorers surrounded by four capable shot creators. But these disappointing Celtics are flashing one trait we probably should have seen coming from an Irving-led roster — they’ve relied more on glitz than grit, a turnabout nobody foresaw after the undermanned C’s scrapped their way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last May.
This isn’t to say Irving lacks toughness or grit. He played through a broken face and until a nagging knee issue became unbearable last season. His defense this season has been better than advertised, and he’s been as active as any player in the NBA despite being six months removed from season-ending knee surgery. But the game looks like it comes so damn easy to him, and through the first six weeks his teammates have played like the results should, too.
We assumed wunderkind coach Brad Stevens would maximize a switchable and stretchable lineup of Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, but they are still searching for answers a quarter of the way into the season. Through an 11-10 start, that starting lineup owns the worst offensive rating of any five-man unit that has played at least 75 minutes together, mostly because they have played like a group that trusted its talent to rise to the top.
“I thought we were just going to take off,” Horford told The New York Times’ Marc Stein following Saturday’s underwhelming loss to the Dallas Mavericks. “I thought it was going to be … boom.”
Boston’s battle of youth versus age
“I think last year, the young guys that are in the locker room now … they weren’t expected to do as much, and I think that the amount of pressure that we put on them to perform every single night is something that they have to get used to, being part of a great team like this,” Irving said recently, per ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. “If you’re not playing to the standard then, as a team, we just don’t all click. I think once we get that, and we find that consistency, we’ll be good.”
It was a statement those of us on the outside could understand from both sides.
Tatum’s shot selection noticeably strayed from the outside-in game he displayed as a rookie to one littered with mid-range jumpers. Almost a third of his shots this season have come from the mid-range, where he’s shooting 32.9 percent. Both Brown and Terry Rozier struggled to recreate their production in smaller roles. In fewer minutes per game, their combined true shooting percentage has dropped from 55 percent against playoff competition to 47 percent this regular season. More consistent and efficient production from the trio of youngsters who elevated Boston’s ceiling last season would no doubt help seamlessly blend their best qualities with those of the two injured All-Stars who are being incorporated back into the offense this season.
At the same rate, it’s not easy for anybody to jam an equal level of comfort or confidence from a freewheeling starting spot during a desperation playoff run into a more contained role, especially players in search of stardom and the contracts that come with it. Tatum, Brown and Rozier have all pressed as a result. Forced shots early in the clock have led to fewer passes per game (the Celtics rank 18th in that regard this season, down from an above-average mark a year ago), and what was a middling offense last season has dipped to unacceptable levels in the early going.
You can also imagine how Tatum, Brown and Rozier might wonder why, after nearly toppling LeBron en route to the Finals, they are expected to take a backseat now that their veteran replacements aren’t extracting the same results — and how that might disrupt chemistry on a team expected to contend. It does not help that rumors circulated of Rozier’s displeasure with his minutes, regardless of his insistence to the contrary. And it may not help that Irving publicly reminded them of their failures to meet increased expectations in decreased playing time.
“You’re almost at that rock-bottom point where the team is about to blow up,” Irving added to reporters on Saturday. “Not saying that we’re there, but for me there is no more time to waste.”
An ‘insane’ search for a Celtics identity
Whatever the reason, the Celtics have not played with the same frenzied freedom they had as underdogs in the absence of Irving and Hayward last season, when the importance of maximizing every possession was magnified in uphill playoff battles against LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the pair of young Philadelphia 76ers stars. Their edge gave them an edge.
“Our focus needs to be just playing better and our effort level,” Horford said after an especially troublesome loss to the New York Knicks last week, via NBC Sports Boston’s Sherrod Blakely. “We should never talk about effort. That’s the one thing I think that’s not there all the time.”
Once Stevens moved Hayward to the bench last week in hopes the former All-Star could find his footing following foot surgery without impacting the team’s ability to avoid early deficits, an injury to Brown and the New Orleans Pelicans’ propensity to play small forced Marcuses Smart and Morris into the starting lineup, and the Celtics may have stumbled into a solution to their apathy.
Smart and Morris are as tough as they come. They bring energy defensively, and while the offense isn’t always pretty, there’s no questioning their willingness to do what it takes to get a job done. They’ve also been two of the more vocal critics of the team’s inability to meet expectations.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys, man, and I think they get down on themselves when stuff’s not going the right way. And it’s just an adjustment,” Morris told The Athletic’s Jay King in a thesis on mood swings. “I don’t think it’s the pressure [getting to them]. To me, the pressure was last year, you know what I’m saying? I don’t think it’s that. I just think they’re just not as successful as they want to be early on and I think it’s just getting to them as it would a young player. I think multiple guys don’t have the best energy, obviously it’s going to snowball on the team.”
“The definition of insanity, everybody knows, is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg of an impassioned locker room speech he delivered to teammates after a blowout loss to the Utah Jazz. “So it’s insane.”
Celtics fans recognize the irony in Smart and Morris acting as voices of reason on this team. Yet, by the time Stevens brought Hayward and Aron Baynes off the bench to replace the Marcuses eight minutes into Monday night’s game, the Celtics had already built a double-digit lead on the Pelicans they wouldn’t relinquish in one of their more impressive wins of the season.
Stumbling into the Marcus Smart move
The lineup of Irving, Smart, Tatum, Morris and Horford has been Boston’s best high-usage unit this season, outscoring opponents by 25.2 points per 100 possessions in 52 shared minutes. Morris has been flat-out better than Hayward through 21 games, and Irving made a point to single out Smart’s service as a pressure release valve, allowing him to play off the ball both offensively and defensively. Irving all but cast his vote for Smart to remain in the starting lineup.
“When he’s playing with me,” Irving said Monday, via CelticsBlog, “we play pretty well together.”
Boston outscored opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions in the 861 minutes Irving and Smart shared the court last season. That number is down to 2.7 per 100 in the early going, but the hope for Stevens is that more reps with the first unit will yield similar results this season.
Irving’s Celtics needed an identity after forming one without him. Smart and Morris provide it. And if this lineup fizzles out, too, it’ll be onto the next. Boston is too talented to continue floundering at .500, and their coach is too good not to find groups that generate positive results. It’s taken longer than we figured, and it may not bear likeness to the lineup we imagined, either.
“It’s not one guy. It’s not two guys. It’s all of us,” Stevens told reporters after the Knicks loss. “We’re not playing with the same personality we played with last year. That’s the easiest way to describe it. And then the 50,000 issues that are below that. We have to tackle one at a time.”
Next up: How the youth responds to the veteran infusion of fortitude. That’s the issue that if resolved could determine whether the Celtics are a contender, and it may be up to Irving — the 26-year-old with championship experience — to bridge the divide between glitz and grit.
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