After three games, let’s not pretend we’ve learned all that much about the 2015-16 Boston Celtics. We knew they were way better than the Philadelphia 76ers/Gypsies. We knew they were worse than the San Antonio Spurs. Some will say that we learned that the Celtics aren’t quite ready to take the Atlantic Division and leap ahead of the Toronto Raptors (Brad Stevens admitted this after the game). The Raptors are one of the teams they will be competing with for 4th-8th playoff seeds in the now-crowded-with-decent-teams-East. The truth is, they tightened up in the third quarter against Toronto, and watched DeMarre Carroll and Luis Scola (both new additions in Toronto) take advantage of the Boston starting unit. The truth is also that they are a defensive-minded team, and the defense didn’t stifle the Raptors as hoped.
Game 1: Celtics 112, Sixers/Gypsies 95
The Sixers played to their strengths (Okafor and Noel) in the first quarter, and they managed to hold a lead without an assist. They managed all of one assist in the first half. The Celtics took over in the second quarter, opening up the lead with a 30-14 quarter based around hostile defense and balanced scoring. The rugged defense lifted them to an opening night blowout win. Sadly, a blowout win over the Sixers isn’t impressive, so much as expected. Sixers fans are left wondering when they will have a point guard, and if Joel Embiid and Dario Saric are actual human beings.
Game 2: Raptors 113, Celtics 103
The Raptors visited the Garden on Friday night. The final score: Raptors 113, Celtics 103. The third quarter score was Raptors 30, Celtics 21. During the first three minutes after halftime, neither team took control. With 9:00 left in the third, after David Lee connected on both free-throws, the Celtics took a two-point lead, 60-58. Toronto then went on an 11-2 run that was the only big run either team had all game. By the 6:58 mark of the third, the Raptors led 69-62. A few concerns from that run:
- Boston will struggle to score without Isaiah Thomas (we knew this, but it was tragically reinforced)
- Avery Bradley is not a skilled passer (Scola steal off Bradley pass led to Lowry’s 3-point play off turnover)
- Defensive rebounding may be an issue whenever Amir Johnson is on the bench (Zeller/Lee gave Scola his second offensive board, which led to Scola’s put-back)
To be succinct, the Celtics were beaten without their two most important players on the court. Isaiah Thomas and Amir Johnson. Unfortunately, Brad Stevens knows he has to keep Isaiah and Amir healthy all season, which means limiting their minutes. For all of the talk of the Celtics depth heading into the season, they have to acknowledge that their starting unit isn’t capable of matching the starting units of the better teams in the NBA.
For Celtics fans that were overly optimistic about David Lee, based on the successful years he had in New York, be warned: Lee was gifted away from Golden State (luxury tax and roster-fit) because he can’t play defense, and he can’t shoot from beyond 15 feet. He’s a good locker room presence, a nice passer for a big, and he will stay upbeat. However, the Celtics shouldn’t be playing Lee more than 15 minutes per game. He’s getting Sullinger/Johnson’s minutes for now because he can pass and used to be able to score around the rim. After three games, Lee is 5 of 20 from the field, and has been spending more time looking at officials after missing shots than slapping hands with teammates.
If Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart can’t be relied upon against better defenders, the Celtics starters will continue to struggle for offense. The hope is that Bradley’s range has continued to improve, and that Smart’s ankle is fully healed, and with some seasoning, he will become a helpful Kyle Lowry-type penetrating point guard. It remains clear the Isaiah Thomas is the only seasoned creator on the roster.
Game 3: Spurs 95, Celtics 87
If you like watching defense, you like watching Marcus Smart. At some point, I will have to write an ode to Marcus Smart’s anticipation and footwork. For now, just consider these numbers in three games:
Marcus Smart: 11 assists, 7 steals, 2 blocks, 2 turnovers.
The numbers listed above show the promise of Marcus Smart. The 7 steals are awesome, but there’s also the charges he’s drawn leading to opponent turnovers. The 11 assists are helpful, but its the fact that he’s only turned it over twice.
On the other hand, Smart is 5 of 16 from deep (31%). While playing on an injured ankle for a good portion of last season, Smart shot 33.5% from deep, and only 36.7% overall. Too many of Smart’s three-pointers have come as a last resort because nobody can tilt the defense with penetration, and result in a dwindling shot-clock. Starting Smart and Bradley in the back court means great defense and questionable offense that has to improve early in the season. The pressure they put on David Lee / Jae Crowder / Tyler Zeller to create offense off-the-bounce is too great.
Numbers from deep (through 3 games):
- Amir 2 of 5
- Bradley 4 of 12
- Smart 5 of 16
- Crowder 3 of 11
- Sullinger 2 of 6
- Olynyk 1 of 8
- Thomas 3 of 15
- Turner 0 of 3
The same Spurs defense that absolutely suffocated the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night–holding them to all of 28 points in the second half of a blowout win–suffocated the Celtics in the first half of this Sunday matinee. Boston was down 44-31 at the half, but the fact that made it to 30 by the break was a miracle, considering they had 6 points with 3:30 left in the first. Just as the Celtics starters struggled in the third quarter against Toronto, they struggled in the opening quarter against the Spurs.
Why were the Celtics so allergic to offense? Because the Spurs play great perimeter and interior defense, and the Celtics cannot create. Contested mid-range jumpers are victories for the defense. The Spurs defense won. The Celtics took only 14 free-throw attempts. In contrast, they attacked the hoop relentlessly against Toronto, and finished with 42 free-throws attempted. Much of the difference can be ascribed to the pace of each game. While Toronto aims to push like Boston does, the Spurs dictate tempo as well as any team in the league.
Boston made a spirited second half run, cutting the lead to 4 (79-75) after a Jared Sullinger 25-footer. New Spur LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard sealed the victory in the closing minutes.
Also, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, “really respects the hell out of Brad Stevens.”
Reasons for Concern & Possible Changes Coming
Brad Stevens has been open about the idea that he will be constantly tinkering with the lineup, and would prefer to go with a 10-man rotation, but has played 11 in each of the last two games (removing Zeller after 6 minutes against the Spurs).
- Celtics starting lineup not scoring, which may lead to Amir Johnson replacing Zeller at center
- Evan Turner is 5 of 20 from field, with 6 assists and 8 turnovers
- R.J. Hunter had the flu, but will likely be taking minutes from Turner and Jerebko in the near future
- Three-point shooting has been miserable, though Toronto and San Antonio both pride themselves in defending the perimeter and taking away the three.
- Isaiah Thomas looked great against Philadelphia and Toronto, but shot 4 of 18 against San Antonio. Let’s hope his knee isn’t bothering him at all.
The Celtics upcoming schedule is full of mid-tier Eastern conference opponents. The Pacers are attempting an on-the-fly rebuild around Paul George. Roy HIbbert and David West are gone, which means the defensive end is far less imposing (sorry, Ian Mahinmi). The Pacers and Wizards are both attempting to push the pace. Milwaukee will lean heavily on its defense, and gradually try to incorporate Greg Monroe’s post-game into the mix. All four games should be relatively close.
Wed, Nov 4 @ Indiana
Fri, Nov 6 vs Washington
Tue, Nov 10 @ Milwaukee
Wed, Nov 11 vs Indiana