Celtics

4 reasons for the Celtics struggles early in the season

Defense and floor spacing are two major problems.

Celtics Wizards
Washington Wizards center Montrezl Harrell drives to the basket against Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

You have to hand at least one thing to new Celtics coach Ime Udoka: When his team struggles, he’s happy to name what he believes is the issue to the media.

“It’s discouraging we can’t hold the lead but also that we aren’t playing with the right effort to stay in the game until we get down,” Udoka said on Wednesday following his team’s 116-107 loss to the Wizards. “It’s a habit we definitely have to break.”

So far this season, Udoka has called out multiple players individually, including Jaylen Brown on Wednesday. There has been plenty to touch on in the early going — the Celtics once again look like an inconsistent bunch capable of dominating an overtime period against the Hornets but equally capable of starting the season with two terrible performances in front of their home crowd.

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So what are the issues? There are plenty that go well beyond effort and focus. Here are four of them.

Marcus Smart hasn’t figured out his offense.

Prior to the season, Smart said he was excited to start at point guard for the first time, but the early returns have been discouraging on the offensive end. Smart is shooting just 25.5 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from deep with a 24th-percentile turnover percentage of 17.3, per Cleaning the Glass. To his credit, he isn’t trying to shoot his way out of his slump (just 9.4 field-goal attempts per game so far), but the Celtics’ offense has been demonstrably a little worse when he is on the floor.

The solution isn’t really obvious. The Celtics could add Dennis Schröder to the starting lineup, but that would mean taking the ball out of Smart’s hands a little more often and sending one of either Al Horford or Robert Williams to the bench. They can’t really take Smart out of the starting lineup either because their defense (which we will get to) has been held together by Smart, the bigs, and paper mâché.

Smart doesn’t need to shoot 40 percent from 3-point range, but getting back to last year’s numbers would help quite a bit.

The defense has myriad issues.

This is a big one: The Celtics are 20th in the NBA so far per Cleaning the Glass, allowing 109 points per 100 possessions, and the schematic problems are fairly obvious.

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Wednesday’s game offered plenty of examples. The Celtics struggled to guard the point of attack, even with a Bradley Beal shooting line that should have been catastrophic (7-for-25 from the field). Opposing guards scooted right by their defenders and threw the Celtics — who do not play defense well in rotation at this stage — into rotation constantly.

Spencer Dinwiddie bullied Dennis Schröder, who is small for his position, and made tough 3-pointers over bigs who were switched far out onto the perimeter.

With the bigs switched to the perimeter, Montrezl Harrell feasted inside and on the offensive glass — dominating against mismatches. Opponents pull down 27.6 percent of their own misses against the Celtics, which is 26th in the NBA. With Robert Williams and Horford, the Celtics really shouldn’t have this much trouble rebounding.

Williams added muscle to defend the post better, but he’s heavier and less mobile. Last season, he blocked a lot of 3-pointers with his length and athleticism. This year, he looks more ground-bound.

Jaylen Brown doesn’t appear to have a great handle on the defensive schemes yet and got beat off the ball frequently against the Wizards.

Jabari Parker gives back most of the offense he provides by being out of position and slow to react.

The Celtics aren’t going to blow teams away with their offense. Their defense was supposed to be a calling card, but it needs to be much better.

The spacing issues are real and costly

As a team, the Celtics are second so far in both 3-pointers made and attempted, but 12th in percentage at 35.0.

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The lack of production from the youngsters is a problem. Romeo Langford showed promise but has been absent with a calf injury. Aaron Nesmith is yet to make a shot, and he received consecutive DNP-CDs against the Hornets and Wizards. Payton Pritchard didn’t play against the Wizards, and he is yet to tally more than 15 minutes in a game. Nesmith and Pritchard in particular were expected to be floor-spacing options for a Celtics team that lacks them.

Meanwhile, three rotation guards — Dennis Schröder, Josh Richardson, and Marcus Smart — are all question marks from 3-point range. We covered Smart’s struggles. Richardson has hit 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers and Schröder was excellent from deep in the last two games, but opposing defenses will always be more willing to surrender 3-pointers to those two rather than giving up shots to Tatum and Brown. How confident are the Celtics that Schröder and Richardson can continue to produce with volume?

The stars have been wildly inconsistent

This, more than any other issue, is the biggest one.

In the opener, Jayson Tatum had one of the worst shooting lines of his career. He was only mildly better against the Raptors, good against the Rockets, great against the Hornets, and then mediocre again against the Wizards.

Brown might deserve a little more grace given his recent battle with COVID-19, but the contrast between his two good games (an average of 38 points on 56 percent shooting) and his two bad ones (11 points on 26.6 percent shooting) is striking, and Udoka’s aforementioned quote wasn’t a great look.

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“I see it as well,” he said. “I’m trying to ramp him up during the game, pump him up to get going but the contrast of some of those previous games, especially Charlotte and the New York game and the way you see him come out tonight is kind of mind-boggling.”

Perhaps more than the rest of the team, Tatum and Brown have time to turn their season around — they are both stars and can both reasonably expect more consistency.

More than anyone else on the roster, the team needs them to show it.

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