Celtics coach Brad Stevens sat in front of a microphone after his team’s somewhat puzzling 93-90 home loss to the Magic and said his team had just played its best offensive game of the season.
Yes, the Celtics made just 9 of 40 3-pointers. Yes, they scored just 90 points. But Stevens was pleased with the way the ball was popping from side to side. The missed shots, he said, were not indicative of sloppy play. It’s just that sometimes, even when the setup is clean, shots thud off of rims.
About 15 minutes later, Stevens’s assessment was relayed to Al Horford. The Celtics forward was asked if he, too, thought it was the team’s best offensive performance of this young season.
Horford paused. It seemed like he did not want to disagree with his coach, but he also did not want to loft praise where he did not feel it was warranted. After thinking about it for six seconds, he answered.
“Um,” Horford said. “No.”
Last Tuesday, the Celtics started the season by blitzing the powerful 76ers, only adding to the hype that followed them into this year. The week since, though, has been bumpy.
Boston lost on the road against the Raptors and escaped by 2 points against the lowly Knicks, and there was a sense that Monday’s game against the visiting Magic would bring new urgency. Instead, the Celtics never led, and they tied the score just once, 2-2. Orlando is not expected to challenge for a playoff spot this season.
The Celtics do not believe there is reason for alarm right now, but they also understand that they need more than this.
“There are times we look really good and there are times we don’t look good at all,” Horford said. “We just have to keep learning — hopefully winning and learning as opposed to losing. Sometimes, these type of things have to happen for the group to react.”
Of course, the ebb and flow of a season is always more glaring at the start, sort of like in baseball, when a batting average can skyrocket or plummet amid tiny sample sizes. Last season the Celtics lost their first two games and were facing a dark future without the injured Gordon Hayward. Then they won 16 games in a row, and fans forgot that they ever had concern.
Something like that could easily happen this time, too. Or, it could not.
“I just try to keep everybody calm and keep myself calm, and just realize that it’s a long season,” point guard Kyrie Irving said, “and [there are] nights like this where you should just take it as a hit on the chin, a learning experience, and you move forward.”
Despite their teetering, the Celtics still had a chance to steal a win Monday. They clawed back from a 13-point second-half deficit, and with 14.2 seconds left Irving sliced through the lane and hit a floater that pulled his team within 91-90.
Irving said later that maybe he should have attempted a 3-pointer on that possession, but he pointed out that the Celtics had a chance soon after anyway.
After a timeout, the Celtics looked to trap on the inbounds pass and had a chance to foul Aaron Gordon, a career 69.8 percent free throw shooter. Instead, Gordon found Evan Fournier, an 80.3-percent shooter. Fournier’s free throws stretched Orlando’s lead back to 93-90 with 7.8 seconds to play.
Boston advanced the ball with another timeout, and Irving’s contested 3-pointer from the right corner caromed off the rim. Horford corralled the rebound and found Hayward at the top of the key. It offered the forward a perfect opportunity for his first big TD Garden moment. But his shot was off, and Orlando escaped.
“It had a chance for sure,” Hayward said of his miss. “It was a good look, kind of like was the story of the night. We had a bunch of good looks. Just didn’t knock them down.”
Irving finished with 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. Jayson Tatum, two days removed from his tough last-minute jumper that helped propel Boston over the Knicks, missed all five of his 3-point attempts and was 3 for 12 overall, finishing with 7 points.
As a team, the Celtics made 22.5 percent of their 3-pointers and 54.9 percent of their 2-pointers. They were without center Aron Baynes, who missed the game with a strained hamstring.
“I have no doubt we’ll figure it out,” Hayward said. “But we definitely have a lot of work to do.”
Nikola Vucevic had 24 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Magic (2-2). Even though Orlando was held to 93 points, the Celtics were not especially pleased with their defense. Stevens said his team did not offer enough physical resistance, particularly at the start, and this was a notion Horford could get behind.
“Even though we held them to 93, I think there was a lot of broken plays,” he said. “We need to be better playing in a string together, and I take the blame on that.”