Now that some real games have finally been played, here are 11 thoughts about the Celtics’ somewhat surprising 4-1 start.
■ Last season the Celtics’ unusual depth created some issues for coach Brad Stevens. He had so many capable players that it became a challenge to find time for those who deserved it, and then when he did find time, there was a risk of disturbing the rhythm of the starters, who probably felt like they should be playing even more.
Sometimes an injury to a regular rotation player actually seemed to help the team, because playing time and roles became more defined for the others.
This year, despite some encouraging moments from the rookies, the Celtics are more top-heavy, and they do not figure to be able to withstand injuries as well. And that has probably been the most impressive aspect of Boston’s 4-1 start.
Center Enes Kanter has missed four games due to a knee injury and forward Jaylen Brown has missed the last two because of an illness. Daniel Theis and Robert Williams have missed a game apiece. But Boston has won all of them anyway.
Stevens has called on rookies like Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards a bit more than he will when everyone is healthy, but he has mostly reacted to the absences by ramping up the playing time of his stars, and that is certainly not his preferred long-term approach.
Jayson Tatum (35.6), Kemba Walker (35), and Gordon Hayward (34.4) all rank in the top 25 in the NBA in minutes per game.
“Hopefully those guys are more around 32 to 33 when Jaylen’s around,” Stevens said. “It’s just a little bit more difficult to not play them a little bit more when he’s not.”
■ Walker, Tatum, and Hayward have combined to make 45 of 101 (44.6 percent) of their 3-pointers. That number is not sustainable, but they’re forcing defenses to make some tough choices. Walker, for one, has never been part of a team with this much offensive firepower, and he has made it quite clear that he is enjoying it.
■ Walker’s ability to probe and draw contact continues to impress. He is averaging 8.2 free throws per game and he has made 92.7 percent of them. Last season Kyrie Irving led the team by taking 3.7 per contest. In addition to getting to the line himself, Walker will help get the Celtics into the free-throw penalty earlier in quarters this year, allowing low-stress points to accumulate.
■ The Celtics who have yet to start a game this season are a combined 2 for 26 from 3-point range. Yikes.
■ November is unofficially Celtics reunion month, or revenge month, depending on the viewpoint. Boston already overcame Marcus Morris’s 29-point night — including a potential overtime-forcing 3-pointer that was erased by Jayson Tatum’s game-winner — on Friday against the Knicks. And now more reminders from last season’s quagmire will flood in.
On Thursday the Celtics will visit Terry Rozier and the Hornets. It will also be Walker’s first game back in Charlotte. On Nov. 18, Boston will go on the road to face center Aron Baynes and the Suns, and, of course, on Nov. 27, Irving will make his long-awaited return to Boston. The two teams will meet again in Brooklyn a few nights later.
The season is young, but all three players are putting up career highs almost across the board. Irving is averaging 30.5 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.5 rebounds, Rozier is averaging 16 points, 5.8 assists, and 4 rebounds, and Baynes has had the most surprising surge of the three, with 15 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists for the 4-2 Suns. He has never averaged more than 6.6 points in a full season.
■ Boston’s upcoming schedule: at Cavaliers, at Hornets, at Spurs, vs. Mavericks, vs. Wizards, at Warriors, at Kings. The Celtics will almost certainly be favorites in all of those games except at San Antonio, so there will be a real opportunity to do some early standings padding.
■ Much has been made of Tatum’s shot profile, as he increasingly trades inefficient long 2-pointers for threes and drives. Last season, 16.5 percent of Tatum’s points came on mid-range jumpers, but that number has dipped to just 5.6 percent through five games. Meanwhile, 37 percent of his shot attempts are 3-pointers, up from 30 percent a year ago.
■ A Tatum shooting stat that won’t look this way at year’s end: He has made 48.6 percent of his 3-pointers and 34.9 percent of his two-pointers.
■ It’ll be interesting to see how the Celtics work Kanter back into the fold upon his return. He is the team’s best rebounder and a good finisher inside, but he does not necessarily fit among the team’s floor-spacing, rim-attacking top wings. And the Celtics are 4-0 without him, including wins over the Bucks and Raptors. Look for Kanter to come off the bench with Daniel Theis serving as the primary starting center, with adjustments when facing massive frontlines like Philly’s.
■ Speaking of the 76ers, they are the last undefeated team in the NBA and Al Horford is averaging 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game.
■ The Red Claws open their regular season on Saturday. Keep an eye on rookie point guard Tremont Waters’s progress, particularly if Brad Wanamaker does little to stake his claim to the third-string point guard slot. Also, look for 20-year-old rookie Romeo Langford to head to Maine to get some more extensive game reps.