The Boston Celtics are not healthy. They’re also not happy, either.
The Celtics have been without Al Horford (concussion) for four games and Jae Crowder (ankle) for three, and for a team that — as even All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas concedes — doesn’t have any superstars, missing two of arguably their three best players is a serious problem for the Celtics.
“[Basketball is about] playing hard. It’s leaving it all out there on the floor. That’s who we were,” said Thomas, via ESPN.com. “That’s what made us one of the best defensive teams in the league. That’s what made us win 48 games last year. We have to find that swag, we gotta get that back. Because, if we don’t, it seems like we’re going off talent, which we really don’t have that much talent, including myself.
“I think if we get that hard-hat [mentality] back, where we’re the hardest-playing team, we’re going to be in every game. Just like last year, we didn’t get blown out like this. Even though it’s early, two really bad games for us, we didn’t have these type of games last year.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens expressed similar sentiment this week, questioning the team’s toughness. “The nicest way I can say this is, I think we play like a finesse team,” he said, “and they play physical.”
Boston has allowed an atrocious 122.3 points per 100 possessions during its current three-game losing streak. The defense prior to this stretch wasn’t great, either, as the Celtics gave up 104.7 points per 100 possessions, but it was effective enough for a 3-1 start. However, this recent stretch has sunk what was a top-five defense last season to the league’s worst mark of the young season. Yikes.
There is a simple explanation for their problems. The Celtics are 21.3 points per 100 possessions better with Horford than they are without him, and the production with and without Crowder is similarly lopsided. The starting lineup with those two outscored opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions, and without them, the starters are getting outscored by 33.8 points per 100 possessions.
It would be easy for the Celtics to chalk their lack of success up to those injuries, but that would not explain how they won 48 games without Horford or beat the Warriors in Golden State sans Crowder last season. So, Boston is searching for answers, and Thomas offered one possible explanation.
Isaiah Thomas blames effort most of all (by far) but: "We're not just missing Jae. We're missing Evan."
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) November 10, 2016
Could the Celtics really be missing Evan Turner this much? While few figured they should have matched Portland’s four-year, $70 million to the free agent this summer, there are those who believed Boston’s bench would struggle without Turner’s shot creation and playmaking to steer the offense.
As if the $17.5 million average annual salary wasn’t enough, the rise of Terry Rozier during the offseason made Turner’s departure that much easier for the Celtics to swallow. The second-year guard averaged 20 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists in summer league, with similar production in fewer minutes during the preseason, all while shooting a combined 16-of-31 from 3-point range.
Those numbers have dipped to 5.3 points (37.5 percent from 3), 2.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 18.7 minutes a night during the regular season. Still, his 36-minute averages of 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists (against just 1.1 turnovers) compare favorably with Turner’s production in those same 36-minute windows last season: 13.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists (against 2.7 turnovers).
And yet Stevens entrusted Turner with 10 more minutes per night last season than Rozier early in 2016-17. Maybe increased minutes and usage for the 22-year-old might further ease Turner’s absence.
But the offense hasn’t been the issue for these Celtics. They currently rank third in offensive rating (109 points per 100 possessions). The real problems for Boston have come on the defensive end. The bench defense is 16.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Rozier on the floor through seven games than they were with Turner in 81 games last season. Then again, Turner wasn’t that great on defense, and Rozier isn’t that bad. Perhaps it’s more a matter of increased minutes for rookie Jaylen Brown and backup center Tyler Zeller in the absence of Crowder and Horford that has left the depth chart dry.
The Celtics have more-than-capable defenders in Horford, Crowder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, but they have yet to all play a game together, since Smart missed the first three games with an ankle injury. Once you start taking two of those links out of the equation, the defensive chain begins to break, so it might be wise to wait on determining how much they miss Turner until they all fill out a lineup for once. Barring any setbacks, that scenario should play itself out as soon as next week.
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The only other rotational player missing from last year’s 48-win team is Jared Sullinger, and there’s no doubt his defensive rebounding would help a team that ranks dead last in that regard, too, as Sully’s 27.0 defensive rebounding percentage in 2015-16 ranks higher than anybody’s on this year’s roster. But he’s yet to play a game for the Toronto Raptors due to injury concerns that led Boston to let him walk.
A healthy Horford and 7-footer Kelly Olynyk’s return from offseason shoulder surgery on Wednesday should eventually alleviate some of the rebounding woes left in Sullinger’s wake. Still, the Celtics are questioning themselves, and the answer to how they’ll meet the lofty expectations everyone set for them this year may be as simple as Horford and Crowder coming back. In the meantime, Smart gave another easy solution for what’s been ailing a team that doesn’t look like a projected 50-game winner:
“We’ve got to fight,” Smart told the media after Wednesday’s loss. “We ain’t got no heart right now.”
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