The Celtics open the season with the two best teams in the Eastern Conference and look completely unprepared for the challenge.
Yes, it’s the preseason. And there are no titles or awards for the team with the best record or most impressive performance, but the goal in these exhibition games is to amass enough positive stretches of basketball, enough momentum-building moments that allow an indication that all the training camp work and instruction has been effective.
The Celtics have had no such moments.
Friday’s 113-89 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, who will be back here at TD Garden on Christmas Day for real, had few encouraging moments. Boston looked befuddled and confused on offense and didn’t appear to read the scouting report on defense.
Kevin Durant: He’s a shooter who flourishes on pull-up jumpers.
Kyrie Irving: an above average 3-point shooter and playmaker.
Joe Harris: an elite 3-point shooter.
The Celtics players didn’t get any of these memos and just a few days before the season opener against the Milwaukee Bucks, this is a concern. Jayson Tatum looks as if he’s trying too hard to be a superstar. Jaylen Brown made several defensive miscues, and also looked frazzled on offense, and Marcus Smart started the game by attempting five 3-pointers in the first four minutes. He missed all five.
“We’ve got to play a lot better than we have,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think that ultimately we have to make sure we’re building the right habits every time we’re taking the court.”
The outcome meant nothing but Brooklyn, with Irving and Durant finally healthy, looks months ahead of the lethargic Celtics. Irving, in his first game back in Boston since his unceremonious exit, scored an easy 17 points in 28 minutes, looking completely comfortable.
Durant scored 25 points, and it appears as if the Celtics had no idea who he was before the Achilles’ injury. On multiple occasions he was allowed to pull up for open jumpers. In two sequences, he used his long first step to drive past Smart for an easy two-handed dunk.
The Celtics players didn’t appear too dismayed by their performance. They were joking on the sideline in the fourth quarter trailing by 30, but Stevens didn’t exactly want his team to have to pull a 180 when the regular season begins. He wanted something to build on.
As of now, the Celtics look like a team missing two starters. Tristan Thompson went through a pregame workout and appears close to make his Celtics debut. He should start over Daniel Theis, whose bad luck and mistreatment by the officials seems to have spilled into this season.
What’s infuriating about this season is that the Celtics could have really used four or five preseason games because there are so many players trying to eke out roles and gain confidence. Stevens again started Javonte Green as an experiment and he didn’t attempt a shot in 10 minutes.
With Stevens toying with the lineups, the starters look confused. Smart has assumed the role as a third scorer and that’s not good news for the Celtics. He needs to concentrate on defense and taking the open three, not every open three.
Teams such as Milwaukee and Brooklyn are going to punch first, and the Celtics can’t ease themselves into games or rely on Tatum and Brown splashing threes to keep up. That’s lazy basketball, exactly the style they’ve been playing in these two preseason games.
“I’m not worried, I’m not worried at all,” Brown said. “I believe in our system, our coaching staff and the guys that we have. We’ve just got to come out and get a rhythm, get a feel for playing with each other. Obviously we’ve got some guys that are out, and obviously we’ve got some guys that are stepping into some new roles and we’re just going through that process. It’s a long season, we all know that.”
The inclination is to take these past two listless performances seriously but the primary message the Celtics should digest is the overall improvement of the Eastern Conference. The Celtics will no longer take the court as the most talented team on most nights, especially without Kemba Walker. They will have to work feverishly from the tip, setting a defensive tone, using their athleticism to push the pace and score easy buckets.
The Celtics will have to replace their talent with work ethic. They made a habit of starting slow last season and it cost them several games. Entering this new season, they have to be more focused on beating their opponent because their opponent is more focused on beating them.
Brooklyn made a statement Friday. They weren’t going through the motions. Coach Steve Nash used just enough of Irving and Durant to let the Celtics, and the rest of the league, know they have perhaps the best tandem in the East and they are far from reaching their peak.
“Brooklyn, give them a lot of credit, those guys are good but we have a lot of room for improvement,” Brown said. “That’s one thing when you are in the Celtics organization, you can’t be counted out. There’s a fight about this city. There’s a fight about this organization. We’re gonna come out and fight. We’re small, but we’re going to come out and fight.”
Now that the Celtics have acknowledged they are at a disadvantage on some nights, especially against loaded teams such as Brooklyn, they can respond by playing harder and with more fortitude. If not, it’s going to be a long season.