PHOENIX — Through 10 games, the Boston Celtics have been the league’s best defensive team, allowing 98.3 points per 100 possessions — precisely where a team that finished last season with the league’s best defense expected to find itself this time around.
There is just one problem: When the Celtics have been on offense so far this season, they have played like they are guarding themselves.
As a result, Boston finds itself with a 6-4 record heading into Thursday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns. Although the season is only a few weeks old, the Celtics are already facing a gap between themselves and the two teams at the top of the Eastern Conference standings: the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks.
“Long season, man,” Kyrie Irving said with a smile. “Long season. I just try to enjoy it as much as possible, even through the pain or [when] we’re not looking as great.
“I said at the beginning of the season, it’s a challenge for all of us. You’ve just got to seize that and set your goals high.”
One not-so-lofty goal on Boston’s agenda: to become a league-average offense. Through 10 games, the Celtics rank 25th in the league in offensive efficiency — a stunning placement, given the myriad weapons the Celtics have at their disposal.
So how is this happening? Much of it can be derived from a look at Boston’s shot chart, which is at least partially out of step with the way the modern game is being played. While the Celtics are getting up plenty of 3-point attempts — Boston is third in the league, behind only the Houston Rockets and Bucks, in attempted 3s per game — they are dead last in shot attempts in the restricted area and points in the paint, 29th in free throws attempted per game and 27th in shot attempts in the paint per game. Meanwhile, they are averaging the fifth-most shot attempts from midrange (20 per game) and are making just 35 percent of them.
As a result, Boston’s offense has been reliant on making a lot of difficult, inefficient shots, and the Celtics haven’t been making nearly enough of them to survive — let alone thrive.
“I think there’s things we can do within [the offense] that will be better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I do think that we need to be better cutting. Just a little bit more alert to being quicker with our drive decisions. On quick swings making a point of getting the ball quickly to the ground and to the rim, then making a read from there. We’ve been good once we’ve gotten there the last few games … we’re just not getting there quite enough.”
Some of it, though, is simply Boston missing shots it should make. The Celtics showed what they are capable of when they are right by hitting a franchise-record 24 3-pointers in last Thursday’s home win over Milwaukee, and Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone said people worrying about Boston’s offense are simply overreacting.
“They’re improving rapidly,” Malone said with a smile before beating the Celtics on Monday in Denver. “I wouldn’t worry about the Boston Celtics’ offense. … I think they’re going to be just fine.”
Some of it, too, will be helped by both Irving and Gordon Hayward continuing to round into form. After the Celtics reached the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals last season without the services of either star, the expectation was that Boston would be even more formidable with both of them back.
Eventually, that should be the case. But reintroducing them into the mix was always going to bring complications. And while Irving and Hayward almost certainly will make the Celtics better in the long run, they have contributed to Boston’s uneven start to the season.
Irving, coming off a pair of offseason knee surgeries, started slowly, failing to reach double figures twice in his first six games while shooting 39 percent from the field and 24.1 percent from 3-point range. For a scorer as talented as Irving, though, it was only a matter of time before those numbers improved. After a blistering performance Monday in Denver, in which he scored 31 points on 13-for-17 shooting, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range, his season averages are beginning to normalize. He’s averaging 27 points on 60 percent shooting the past four games, lifting his season averages to 19.2 points per game on 48 percent shooting.
Still, Irving is taking three fewer shots per game than he was last season, as well as two fewer free throws per game, as he has tried to adjust to the Celtics’ wealth of options.
“Just trying to build that consistency. That’s all,” Irving said. “Until then, once we put a few games together, even in the tough ones where it may look like the team may have control of the game but we still have the will of a disciplined team, of knowing what shots we need to take, knowing where we need to be, the pace we need to play with, the physicality, that’s when you start seeing the separation of the good from the great teams.”
Meanwhile, Hayward has been understandably shaky in his return from a gruesome injury to his left leg and ankle that cost him all but the first six minutes of last season’s opening game. While there have been positive steps forward, such as his performance Thursday against the Bucks (18 points, four rebounds, five assists in 27 minutes), there have been just as many clunkers.
Until Hayward fully knocks the rust off and has the shackles taken off of him from a minutes standpoint — he’s currently holding steady around 25 per night — he’s going to remain far away from the All-Star he was in Utah. He’s averaging 10.1 points per game, his fewest since his rookie season, and he’s shooting a career-low 40.2 percent from the field.
But Boston has to live with his struggles for now, as its potential with a healthy, in-form Hayward is far higher than it is without him.
“I think we have a lot of room to grow,” Hayward said. “I think for me individually, as well as for the team, there’s a lot of ways in which we can get better. I think there’s been flashes where we play really, really well, and the same for me individually. But then there’s times where I’m not doing what I’m used to doing, and we have lulls as a team.”
The returns of Irving and Hayward have also shifted around the roles of several of the young players — notably Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — who excelled during last season’s playoff run. In the early going, the adjustment has been noticeable from all of them.
Tatum, who was spectacular as a rookie, has regressed a bit to begin his sophomore season. His usage rate is up, but his efficiency is far lower, as he’s shooting 40.6 percent overall (down from 47.5 percent) and 34.9 percent from 3-point range (down from 43.4).
What’s more, Tatum is averaging 0.59 points per play on direct isolations, according to Second Spectrum — the worst mark of any player who has attempted at least 30 such plays this season. His 32 percent shooting on those plays is last among players with 25 or more shots.
“I just am not making shots,” Tatum said. “I’m getting opportunities, but the ball isn’t going in right now.
“That’s all me. I just need to prepare better.”
Brown, meanwhile, has struggled mightily, shooting under 40 percent from the field and barely over 30 percent from 3 as he has registered a single-digit player efficiency rating — though he has also been dealing with a foot issue that caused him to miss the win over Milwaukee.
Rozier was one of the stars of Boston’s playoff run, taking advantage of Irving’s absence to become a cult figure in Celtics circles. This year, though, he has returned to a life of relative anonymity as Irving’s understudy, playing three fewer minutes per game than he did in 2017-18 — and almost 14 minutes fewer than he played each night in the playoffs. As a result, his numbers — save for 3-point shooting — are largely down across the board.
That is a microcosm for Boston’s entire season thus far — and why the Celtics are taking the long view, rather than panicking about their slower-than-anticipated start.
“We don’t even talk about that,” Stevens said. “We’re only focused on what we can do to get better.
“I said from the very beginning of the year, we’re far from where we want to be, and we’re far from really good.”