The only Celtics starter shooting better than 40 percent through the season’s first three games is center Tyler Zeller, and he has issues of his own. On Sunday afternoon against the Spurs, for the second time in three games, he was removed early and played just six minutes.
The Celtics looked so smooth and fluid during the preseason, but they have become choppy and erratic offensively. The Spurs played well enough to win at TD Garden, besting the Celtics, 95-87, but it was a game that Boston could have captured with better execution and more production from the starting five.
The quintet of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, David Lee, and Zeller are shooting a combined 44 for 122 (36 percent), and again they struggled at the outset, fell behind early, and, though valiantly rallying, couldn’t catch the more experienced and consistent Spurs.
It’s pretty apparent that this first group, as well as they played together in the preseason, is not working. So it may be time to tweak the lineup. Zeller has played just 33 minutes in three games, and the Celtics are a minus-16 in his time on the floor.
Since Stevens twice has decided to remove Zeller quickly from the rotation, it may be time to start Amir Johnson at center for a better defensive presence and more scoring around the basket.
Stevens likes the pair of Johnson and Isaiah Thomas, and they have worked well together on the pick and roll, but it will be difficult for those two to truly reach their peak when the Celtics are trailing every time they enter the game.
It’s very early in the season, but the Celtics have to begin notching wins in a difficult November schedule. They can’t afford a 4-11 start while they’re still trying to figure out the kinks of their lineup. Those defects have become very obvious through the first three games.
Lee, a career 53.2 percent shooter, has missed 15 of his 20 shots this season, including 6 of 7 Sunday. There needs to be more patience with Lee, but he has not made the expected spark.
“Me, personally, I’ve been working my butt off and can’t seem to get one to fall,” he said. “Everybody on the floor had looks they normally make, and they haven’t made them. I had a few I could have finished. Everybody’s putting their individual work. I thought the team played very, very hard. We’ll keep putting the work in, and I think we’re due for a very fast start offensively.”
The bench has sparkled in moments. What’s more, three reserves — Thomas, Jared Sullinger, and Johnson — ignited the second-half rally that saw the Celtics reduce a 15-point deficit to 4. What’s been rather mysterious about the season’s first three games is the lack of effectiveness of Crowder, the newly re-signed swingman.
He has attempted just 22 shots over 88 minutes, half of them 3-pointers. He hasn’t been as aggressive offensively and has disappeared on defense. It’s too early to consider removing him from the starting lineup, but he needs to become the same prickly presence as last season.
The Celtics have gotten off to a poor start on 3-pointers, converting just 26.6 percent of their long-range shots. In one second-half sequence Sunday, Kelly Olynyk stopped at the 3-point line on a fast break and released a brick when the Celtics were trying to make a late-quarter push.
“You gotta make the open ones, you gotta continue to find the open ones,” Stevens said. “So I’m not concerned. If you’re unable to make them as a group, which we aren’t, the defense just loads in, and you [can’t] get anything at the rim. You gotta fire with great confidence.”
Stevens said he thought his team played better than in Friday’s loss to the Raptors, but they still lost. And while the Celtics entered the season with so much promise and a stretch of 10 of their first 16 games at home, they have been hindered by rough stretches by their starters.
It may take more time, but there needs to be a sense of urgency. The Celtics’ strength is their depth. They are a team that can thrive with several combinations, and it’s up to Stevens to experiment until he finds those effective mixtures. But it’s not too early to determine when a combination is a dud, and this starting lineup, at least right now, is insufficient.
“We’ll do more research on it, more looking at it,” Stevens said. “I don’t think we’re going to have rotations and all that stuff figured out as early as you’d like, because it’s one of those things where we’ve got a lot of equal guys, and guys who can really step up and make plays on a given night. So I think that we just have to continue to trust the process and make sure that we’re diligent in un-turning — or looking under — every stone. And I’ll do that, and we’ll see.”