There are going to be nights where the Celtics are playing against themselves as much as they are their opponents. Friday was one of those nights, taking on an undermanned Brooklyn Nets team, seeking to atone for two consecutive losses, and trying to play a more polished game because they will be required beginning in April.
The Celtics are one of the most talented teams in the NBA. They were challenged the past few days by teams that hustled more, played more consistently, and scored against their erratic defense.
They entered Friday’s in-season tournament opener perhaps staggering from being knocked around by Minnesota and Philadelphia. Their response was a positive step. They didn’t play down to their opponent, instead using motivation with a touch of humility to runaway from the spunky Nets, 121-107, at TD Garden.
Jaylen Brown scored 12 points in the opening quarter, and the Celtics led for the final 37 minutes, 36 seconds, spending the rest of the evening staving off Brooklyn mini runs, and fighting off complacency and contentment.
The great teams always chase improvement, regardless of whether a higher level is required. The Celtics didn’t play their ‘A’ game against the Nets, but they played good enough and hard enough to ensure Brown didn’t have to play the fourth quarter. The lead was comfortable, and the game lacked suspense.
It’s only November. The Celtics shouldn’t be a finished product, especially with two new starters in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis. They’re still getting accustomed to each other and their roles. Instead of Brown or Tatum starting games by sparking the offense, the goal is to get Porzingis involved early, especially against smallish teams such as the Nets.
What the Celtics learned during their past two games is they are beatable when not focused and not precise. Their talent gives them a large margin for error, but they still have flaws. The challenge for coach Joe Mazzulla is to constantly push his guys to improve, even on their strengths.
“If you take a look at this game, we play this exact same team a year ago and we don’t win the shot margin,” Mazzulla said in his analytical way. “I think it’s the effort the guys have made and what are ways we can win a game, whether we’re shooting the ball well or not. We win the free throw line. We win the turnover battle. We win the shot margin and [we] win the offensive rebounding battle.
“Those are the things that we’re going to have to do consistently and that’s what we learned from last season and they’ve done a good job of buying into that.”
The Celtics can score with anybody, but need to work on their ball movement and shot selection. They won Friday despite the Nets shooting better from the field and 3-point line. They won Friday because they forced more turnovers, were aggressive in the paint, and repeatedly reached the free throw line.
Offensively, they weren’t close to perfect, but they don’t have to be. They are skilled enough to win games in different ways, and Mazzulla’s passion, his consumption, is to relentlessly ensure his guys are working toward perfection.
“You can emphasize something for three games and you see another theme and you want to emphasize that and it doesn’t go well [for the previous emphasis],” Mazzulla said. “So you have to go back to emphasizing those certain things. I think it’s fine in two or three things you have to do all the time and then the other stuff will come up every four or five games.
“One of the things we’re trying to hammer home is our defensive execution and then why a team gets 30-point quarters on us twice [tonight]. It’s not an effort thing, it’s an execution [thing]. Find things you should emphasize every day and themes that will come up every five to eight games.”
Reaching their apex will be a long, laborious process, and the two losses revealed it will not go without setbacks. The challenge is remaining focused every night, regardless of the opponent, because the Celtics are competing against themselves. Trying to push themselves to a level they’ve never reached.
They’ve been close, such as two years ago, but they were beset by slippage. This group is trying to ensure they’re so balanced, slippage in one area won’t be their downfall.
“It’s a learning curve. We’re still figuring stuff out,” Brown said. “We’re still building chemistry with one another, still building trust with one another. The two teams that we lost to did a good job of [applying] a lot of pressure and kind of got us out of the stuff we want to do. As we study and watch and we improve, we learn to trust each other in certain moments and we prepare for that.
“We got a long season to go and it’s all about building trust and building chemistry. I think that’s the most important thing.”
The Celtics are realizing that every game will present an important challenge, even if it’s just trying to be more consistent than the night before.