There is no panic in the voice of president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. He put this Celtics team together to succeed, to take that next major step in respect to elite. And his team has stumbled through the first six games with just three wins heading into Wednesday’s game against the Washington Wizards.
Reinforcements will slowly arrive. Kelly Olynyk made the trip to Washington and could be available for the first time this season. If not, he’ll return this weekend. Al Horford and Jae Crowder, the Celtics’ best two defenders, remain in Boston getting healthy, but their injuries are short term.
Of course Ainge would like to be one of those teams off to a blazing start, such as Charlotte, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers but the Celtics have struggled defensively, played a difficult schedule and then were caught by surprise by a talented Denver club.
“I think it’s part of a growing process that I guess it’s better this time of year, we try to find our identity,” Ainge said. “We had such a good defensive year last year, got off to a great start. You get some momentum [by doing that]. We need to put some defensive games together to get that defensive confidence in one another and trust in each other.
The Celtics entered Tuesday 28th in the NBA in points allowed at 111.8 points per game and 26th in opponent’s 3-point field goal percentage. The team was 13th and fourth in the NBA in those categories, respectively, last season.
“At the same time, we’re missing three out of our top five defensive players. And at least from a statistical standpoint. No, I am not overreacting. We have a lot of young guys out there on the court that are getting good experience and I know the players are sick by the way they’ve played the last couple of games but I think we’re just trying to keep everybody upbeat and stay positive and all we can do is keep working to get better.”
There was a potential danger that the players would believe the hype generated by most of their players returning from a playoff team along with the addition of Horford. The Celtics were picked by many experts to win the Atlantic Division and challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. In their only matchup so far — without Horford and Crowder — the Cavaliers scored 68 first-half points en route to a 128-122 win. The Celtics did little to stop Cleveland defensively and looked overwhelmed in stretches.
“My biggest thing is Brad [Stevens’s] job is to make sure they’re getting better and it’s their job to stay humble and keep working,” Ainge said. “Because so many of them are so young and not close to their prime yet. And it’s my job just to keep everybody on the same page and to keep everybody in the right frame of mind and to continue to improve, regardless of results of games.
“You don’t show up to play in this league on any given night, you can get crushed.”
The pressure is on to perform this season because they are not being overlooked, and perhaps the pressure is heavier for some than others. Third-year guard James Young will be an unrestricted free agent next summer because the Celtics did not pick up his contract option, perhaps motivation for the 21-year-old swingman.
Ainge is having to deal with many of his younger players trying to find themselves in the NBA. The maturity curve is dramatically different than it was in his playing days.
“We do want to motivate James; James has been in a good place the last eight weeks,” Ainge said. “He’s making great strides, the best eight weeks he’s had in his career with us so far. Second of all, we just want to maintain maximum [salary] flexibility. Had James proven more those are options that are easier to pick up.
“I do think there’s a great deal of hope for James. At age 21, where he is today, he’s in a very good place. He’s working hard. He’s one of the first ones to the gym every day. He’s getting extra shots up at night, regularly. I take great pride in helping these guys develop as men. I’m very excited about where he is today, versus a year ago.”
Watching youngsters develop and learn at the highest level is a byproduct of all those draft picks and assets acquired by Ainge over the past three years. He had to dump R.J. Hunter and release Ben Bentil. Meanwhile, rookie Jaylen Brown has worked his way into quality minutes and Stevens even went with Demetrius Jackson for some time Sunday against the Nuggets.
“I think that quite honestly, we know a little bit more about the guys, so it’s not out of nowhere, we know some of the ups and downs of the kids when they come in,” he said. “For example, when we drafted Jaylen we had a pretty good feeling about his work ethic and same with Demetrius. With James, we knew he needed to improve in that area, and he has. He just turned 21, I think that this is the year that James could contribute to us in the third year of his NBA life.”