The most pressing assignment for the Celtics 18 games into the season is finding an offensive identity.
Wednesday night’s 121-114 loss to the Pistons showed the worst of the Celtics on the offensive side, let alone they allowed Detroit, a team that came in shooting 45.1 percent from the field, to make 55.2 percent of its attempts.
The Celtics launched 42 3-pointers, or 46.1 percent of their shot attempts. They converted 15 threes, and it was worse until Avery Bradley hit three consecutive in a too-little, too-late fourth-quarter run. In only 51 games in NBA history has a team attempted more than 42 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, maximum contract free agent Al Horford attempted just five shots. Marcus Smart attempted 14, including eight 3-pointers. Smart is a 28.9 percent 3-point shooter.
Boston takes too many 3 pointers, especially when it lacks elite 3-point shooters. Including Wednesday’s loss, the Celtics have attempted 562 3-pointers of their 1,553 field goal attempts, or 36.2 percent of their shots.
The Warriors, with three elite 3-point shooters, have attempted 3-pointers on 36.5 percent of their shots. While the Celtics are eighth in the NBA in 3-point makes, they are not a superior shooting team from that range. They are better when they blend inside and outside scoring.
Horford can’t get just five shot attempts — two of them 3-pointers, by the way — in 31 minutes. The Celtics have to focus on making him a focal point, which will make scoring easier for his teammates.
Brad Stevens has a philosophy of shooting when you’re open, but the Celtics suffer when the wrong players shoot. Kelly Olynyk attempted just four 3-pointers — hitting three — but passed up several more. Jae Crowder, who when playing well uses his physicality to get to the basket or shoot midrange shots, attempted a season-high 10 3-pointers.
When the Celtics become enamored with the 3-pointer — mostly when they are trying to erase deficits — they are a predictable offensive team, trying to swing for the home run on key offensive possessions, ignoring ball movement and cutting to the basket.
The Pistons have been unquestionably one of the toughest matchups for the Celtics in the Stevens era. The Celtics do not want to see Detroit in a playoff series, especially after former Boston College standout Reggie Jackson returns. On Wednesday night, the Pistons got comfortable early on offense, making it apparent the Celtics would have to outscore Detroit and gets some defensive stops down the stretch.
Horford and Isaiah Thomas did not score in the final quarter (this one didn’t count in the third quarter).
But Smart attempted seven shots. It’s obvious that teams will allow a 35.2 percent shooter to shoot. And Smart obliged.
The Celtics have had some defensive struggles but they are improving. They are never going to be a strong rebounding team, but they have improved there also. The offense, however, has become too reliant on 3-point shooting and the heroics of Thomas, who scored 27 points in the first three quarters.
“They played terrific and made shots,” Stevens said of the Pistons. “In a game like that, you have to be even more in their airspace [defensively] and you’ve got to capitalize even more on the offensive end. Otherwise, you’re probably in trouble. They’re a hard team to match up [against]. They’re level of play was high.”
Which leads to the question of why the Celtics’ level of play wasn’t so high. Detroit played Tuesday in Charlotte — not a short flight — but yet had more energy from the opening tip. The Pistons never got tired. Meanwhile, the Celtics welcomed back Horford after a one-game absence and yet looked lethargic at times, seemingly expecting the Pistons to slow down. It was an arrogant stance.
“The way they were shooting, there was just no room for error,” Horford said. “There were times there where the crowd got really loud and I felt like we were going to turn the corner and take over, and then what really hurt us was transition defense. They got a lot of easy baskets, a lot of easy run-up layups.”
The Celtics need to find themselves quickly. They are wasting critical opportunities that will cost them in April. They are better than they have played. But they are lacking consistent passion, which has been a hallmark of Stevens’s teams the past three years.
The Celtics always played harder. They always made hustle plays. But allowing easy offensive rebounds, committing bad fouls, and taking unnecessary 3-pointers to get the crowd hyped are bad habits they have acquired.
The Celtics are consumed with the long ball, and while it be aesthetically pleasing when they swish through the basket, 3-pointers can eventually doom an offense if they aren’t efficiently attempted. It’s inexcusable for Horford to take only five shots, and three 3-pointers.
So they’d better quickly find an offensive identity or this maddening inconsistency will continue and the Celtics will find themselves fighting for a playoff spot instead of approaching the elite.