I’ve recently discovered a foolproof way to identify Celtics fans that don’t actually pay much attention to the Celtics:
They’re blaming this relatively slow start on Gordon Hayward.
The Celtics entered the new season as the consensus favorite in the Eastern Conference, the team with the best hope of advancing to the Final and presumably either getting mauled by or stunning the three-peat questing Golden State Warriors.
The Celtics should have been the consensus favorite, too. After all, they reached Game 7 of the 2017-18 conference finals without injured stars Hayward and Kyrie Irving. They even led the game with 6 minutes left when precocious rookie Jayson Tatum buried a 3 to put the Celtics ahead.
Had the Celtics’ sometimes too democratic offense not forgotten to involve Tatum in the game’s final four minutes, they might have had the pleasure of ending LeBron James’s second act as a Cavalier. The Celtics team was admirable in so many ways, but the longer you look at the play-by-play from the final minutes, the more what-ifs rear up again.
James headed to Hollywood to join that Lakers roster of misfit toys over the summer, and with Irving — sensational in 60 games last year before a knee injury ended his season — and Hayward returning from the awful leg and ankle injury that ended his season after 5 minutes and 2 points, the Celtics looked loaded. As in, capable-of-banner-18-if-the-Warriors-get-hurt-or-start-to-loathe-each-other loaded.
As you may have noticed, it hasn’t quite trended that way so far. (For the Celtics, I mean. The Warriors/loathing thing seems real and spectacular.) The Celtic are 9-7 entering Monday night’s road matchup with Kemba Walker and the Hornets. That puts them fifth in the Eastern Conference, trailing the 11-4 Raptors by 3½ games while also checking in behind the Bucks, Pacers, and Sixers.
Things seemed to be pivoting in the right direction when they beat the Raptors in overtime Friday, a thriller that featured the best performances as a Celtic for both Irving (43 points on 18 of 26 shooting) and Hayward (15 points on eight shots, team-high 39 minutes).
But the lethargic performance — even for the second game of a back-to-back — Saturday against the Jazz tempered those good feelings. It was the second ugly loss of the season to Hayward’s former team, and a reminder that all of their talented players who were supposed to fit perfectly still too often look like pieces from a different jigsaw puzzle.
It was dispiriting enough that coach Brad Stevens questioned their effort. Part of the charm of last year’s Celtics — and prior Celtics teams with a different roster makeup — is that their effort could never be in question. Now, we’re waiting to see whether Stevens is annoyed enough to shake up the lineup.
It might be easy for some to look at what the shorthanded Celtics achieved last year and conclude that the fault must belong to the returning stars — specifically Hayward, since Irving has been typically breathtaking on offense (if not defense) lately.
That’s not fair, nor is it right.
It’s not fair because it would be utterly absurd to expect Hayward to come back from that injury, after missing a full season and requiring arduous rehab, to be immediately the same as he was before Opening Night 2017, when he landed only to realize with horror that his left foot now pointed west.
Anyone with a clue knew that this would be a process, that there would be small and big victories for Hayward in his progression, and some real frustrations, too. It’s not fair to expect him to be the player he was before immediately upon return. It may not be fair to expect him to be that player again.
I mean, we still think of the injury often when he has the ball, don’t we? He must still have it somewhere near the front of his mind. How can he not? He’s the one who felt the pain.
But what those of us actually watching have seen lately is absolutely encouraging. He doesn’t have his explosiveness back. Teams (especially the Jazz) have slapped a bull’s-eye on him when he’s on defense, and his shot is weirdly erratic. But he’s getting better — he’s noticeably more nimble and aggressive than he was just a week or two ago — and the absence of similar production from his All-Star days has actually led to the recognition of some appealing secondary skills.
Hayward has tremendous hands on defense — if he touches the ball, it’s his. And his passing ability is downright extraordinary. He’s arguably the second-most accomplished Celtic on the roster, and yet he might be their most unselfish passer other than Al Horford. His knack for finding the open man on the perimeter is uncanny . . .
. . . which leads into the fundamental problem with this team. They’re not making open shots. Tatum is shooting 42.4 percent from the field, and just 43.9 percent on 2-point shots. He famously worked out with Kobe Bryant in the offseason, and right now looks like he picked up all of Bryant’s late-career bad habits rather than any useful tricks. He needs to get to the rim more, and he will. It’s probably been tough for him to figure out when and where to be assertive — he could have been the hero of Game 7, and now he must defer to Irving — but there’s nothing to worry about. It’s a 20-year-old’s growing pain, and one that is the product of being on a talented team.
Two of the Celtics’ younger players — and two that were essential during the deep postseason run but dismal in Game 7 — have struggled more. Jaylen Brown is shooting just 36.2 percent from the field and looks like he’s overthinking things on offense. He’s acknowledged that he has to figure out how to thrive when he’s on the court with Hayward, and he’s right, it is up to him to adjust. It would be one thing if he lacked touches because Hayward is trying to score 20 points a game. But Hayward has been unselfish almost to a fault. This growing pain is Brown’s to solve, and the same goes for Terry Rozier, who seems to be trying to score a week’s worth of points in a half.
The young guys are stubborn, which is one of their reasons for their success. But there’s no reason to lose faith in this roster. Stevens, exasperated as he may be, will figure it out, even if he too is adjusting to coaching so much pure talent.
But the truest solution, the quickest fix, is a simple one. The Celtics are first in the league in defensive rating — a decent sign that the effort actually is there — but 27th in offense.
Once they start making open shots, they’re going to start looking like who we believed they would be. I’ll bet it happens soon, too. Funny how much better everything looks when a possession ends in a swish.