WALTHAM – Talk is cheap when you’re 4-5 and all four of your wins are against the dregs of the Eastern Conference. The Celtics know this, but you have to excuse them if they retain their confidence while everyone else is jumping off the bandwagon.
“We have to find that out but I think we are,” Doc Rivers said when asked if he thought the Celtics were still an ‘elite’ team. “Obviously we’re 4-5 right now. Our record says we’re not. We say we are. I’m just going to warn you, it’s nine games. Don’t jump off the bridge yet.”
Still, Rivers acknowledged, “We haven’t beaten anyone, really, yet and we have to do that if we’re going to be an elite team.”
Right now, no, the Celtics are not elite. They’re barely even mediocre.
They rank an unsightly 20th in points allowed per 100 possessions and are 28th in turnover percentage and 21st in defensive rebounding percentage. They have played four games against teams with winning records, including two at home, and lost them all.
It doesn’t get any easier on Friday when they play the Bulls who are 10-2 and managed to beat the Wizards without Derrick Rose by holding them to 64 points.
“They are a great group,” Rivers said admiringly. “They fit so well. I think they fit [Tom Thibodeau]. They fit his personality.”
Despite returning their four All-Stars, the Celtics don’t fit anything yet. Still, Rivers said he felt better about his team after watching the film from the Mavericks’ loss on Wednesday.
“We’re getting closer,” Rivers said. “I was more encouraged than discouraged. The rebounding problem we have to fix, but a lot of the other things, defensively we were really good until we gambled.”
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was in a less charitable mood during his weekly appearance on WEEI’s The Big Show. (Listen to the full interview here).
"I think that’s a fair assessment right now," Ainge said when asked whether the team looks too old. "Nine games into the season, yeah, that would be a fair assessment, but I’m hoping that guys are better than they’re playing and they have something left, but time will tell."
Whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist there’s no denying that the Celtics have not played well. Here are three things they have to fix if they are going to compete, and if not, Ainge reiterated that time was running short.
"I’m committed to the guys as long as they’re going to perform, but they’ve got to perform," he said. "They’ve got to show they have an opportunity to win. Otherwise, I’ve got to at least make an effort to go another direction."
The Celtics spent the better part of two days in practice going over their rebounding woes, but it did them in again on Wednesday. They allowed 17 second-chance points, while scoring zero themselves, and that’s really two separate conversations.
First, the defensive boardwork has been atrocious. Some of this falls on Kevin Garnett, whose rebounding percentages are solid, but down from last season’s elite level. Part of the issue is that Garnett is playing more center this season and without a complimentary rebounder by his side, teams are taking advantage of their lack of size.
Brandon Bass and Jermaine O’Neal are adequate rebounders, but nothing special, and the Celtics have received little from Chris Wilcox. Without a monster on the glass, and Garnett isn’t there yet, they need a team-wide approach and that includes the guards and forwards. They can’t get by on their talent anymore.
On the offensive glass, the Celtics have once again slipped all the way down to 28th in the league in terms of percentage. (That’s a far better way to track their numbers because percentages account for the total amount of shots taken and the Celtics play at a very slow pace, which yields fewer shot attempts. In simple terms, they’re not getting the boards that are there to be rebounded).
This has been a reoccurring theme for the Celtics the last three seasons. In general, good teams often rank low in offensive rebounding because they tend to make more shots and also emphasize getting back on defense, rather than risk getting caught of out of position by attacking the glass.
"I don’t care about offensive rebounds," Rivers said. "I care about defensive rebounds because if we get defensive rebounds, we win the game. The offensive rebounds are what they are, I do want them but that’s not a number I look at a whole bunch. I look at defensive rebounds."
The coach has a point, but so does Ainge who said on The Big Show that he wants to see some improvement on the offensive glass. They had only two on Wednesday, which translates to just six percent, an insanely low number.
"We don’t have to be first," Ainge said. "When we talk about offensive rebounding, we’re talking about offensive rebound percentage. If we shoot 40-for-80, there’s 40 rebounding opportunities when we miss and we get eight of those, that’s 20 percent. That’s what we’re playing at. It’s not enough. We’ve got to get up to 25 percent, to the middle of the pack."
The Celtics are a high-turnover team and always have been. When you mix high turnovers and low offensive rebounds, you’re left relying on an ability to make shots get to the free throw line. They’re solid in both categories, but when either one of those two things are off they struggle mightily to score points.
There’s a happy medium in there somewhere and Bass and particularly Wilcox have shown the ability to get on the offensive glass, albeit in very limited minutes.
STOP GAMBLING ON DEFENSE
Part of the reason the Celtics’ defensive numbers are so poor is they were absolutely shredded in their first three games. Since then they have allowed fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions in four of their six games. But there are still issues.
"Our defense has been terrific [since our first three games]," Rivers said. "What I don’t like defensively, it seems like down the stretch of games we’re having a great defensive possession and then someone, just one guy, will gamble or become undisciplined. It could be any of them and it breaks the whole set down."
One noticeable gamble against the Mavs was by Rondo. With the score tied 79-79 and the shot clock winding down, he made a run at Dirk Nowitzki looking for a steal. When he didn’t make the play that allowed Jason Terry to slide to an open spot and knock down a 3-pointer.
"They’re not doing it because they’re selfish, they’re doing it because they want to win," Rivers said. "They’re going for it. The problem is it hurts you more than it helps you."
Most of the Celtics problems defensively begin with pick and roll coverage. Time and again their guards have been beaten off the dribble and the help has either been slow arriving or over-extended on the pick and roll action. That’s not just Rondo. The Mavs had the ball in Delonte West’s hands to begin most possessions down the stretch with Ray Allen guarding him and West beat him repeatedly on the first move.
The weakside help behind the play has been practically nonexistent, as when Jason Terry strolled through the lane for a layup while Garnett stuck with Nowitzki in the corner and Paul Pierce and Allen never moved.
These are all things the Celtics used to do in their sleep, only now they appear like they’re sleepwalking through defensive sets. Whether it’s tired legs or lack of communication, that’s something they can control.
GET OFF TO BETTER STARTS
This is simply inexplicable. In their last three games the Celtics have scored a grand total of 47 points in the first quarter. It bottomed out on Wednesday when they missed nine of their first 10 shots and it carried over to the third quarter when they scored just 18 in the third quarter against the Mavericks. That’s on the starters who have to carry the load offensively for them to be successful.
“If you saw our first eight shots, I think we would like those same eight shots every night,” Rivers said. “They weren’t open, they were wide open. We missed three layups and wide open jump shots. What are you gonna do, tell them that they have to make them?”
A review of the Celtics first eight possessions on Synergy Sports backs him up. Rondo missed a layup on their first trip and Garnett couldn’t finish twice inside, including one on a lob from Rondo that should have been a dunk. Every single starter missed a jump shot that was either wide open or as close as one can get in the NBA.
The problem is that if the starters aren’t scoring, the bench doesn’t have a go-to player who can generate offense. The second unit actually played well on Wednesday, but they’re an energy and defense group first and an offensive team second. They scored a respectable 27 points, but that’s not enough to make up for an off-night from the starters.
In the past the Celtics could still find ways to win games even when everything wasn’t working at optimal efficiency. That hasn’t been the case this season and who knows, maybe those days are gone forever. Whether it’s because they’re older, out of shape or just not functioning properly, their margin for error is much smaller than it has been in the past.
Until they fix their problems, they don’t have to worry about being elite. Simply being good would be an improvement.