Chris Forsberg

Which early-season concerns are real for stumbling Celtics?

A few familiar issues have cropped up for the C's in their first month of play.

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One month into the 2023-24 season, the Boston Celtics own the best record in basketball. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, for the better part of the past 10 days, some familiar bad habits have reappeared. The invincible feeling many Celtics fans felt watching this new-look team steamroll to an 8-2 start has eroded a bit as the Celtics hit some serious speed bumps during a road-heavy portion of their early-season schedule.

We are prisoners of the moment, and thus, watching this team go 3-2 over its last five games doesn't leave anyone feeling warm and fuzzy. The Celtics’ overtime loss in Charlotte was littered with mental miscues, then the team got a physical butt-whooping in Orlando. Boston won a Thanksgiving Eve showdown with the Bucks in between but needed to hold on for dear life at the finish line.

So how should we feel about where this team stands? The schedule has been fairly daunting with 10 road games in 30 days. Boston just played six games in six different cities over 10 days with a holiday stuffed in the middle of it all. The roster has rarely been at full health throughout that stretch.

Not all of the team’s woes can be chalked up to circumstance. The Celtics have too often fallen into bad habits that most hoped were in the rearview mirror. But what is a major concern and what is minor? Let’s ponder some of the more unsavory moments of the past two weeks.

Blown leads

The Celtics have owned a double-digit lead in each of their last six games. And each time that lead has either been fumbled away or whittled within a possession.

Boston played with fire throughout a four-game road trip, and after nearly getting burnt in Memphis, they finally touched the flame in Charlotte. The Celtics kicked away an 18-point advantage on the final night of that road trip and fell in overtime to the Hornets.

On one hand, a double-digit lead is rarely safe in the modern NBA. Flip around League Pass and you’ll see a team rally out of a big hole most every night. But no team in the league seems to enjoy making its life as difficult as Boston does. An inability to sustain a consistent level of play contributed to the Celtics bowing in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season and fans are still battling PTSD.

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Even with an offseason overhaul, the propensity to downshift remains a concern for these Celtics. Why this team can’t catch itself in those moment remains baffling. But the pace of the team invariably slows down and the Celtics seem rattled each time an opponent erases its lead while going full throttle in transition. 

The Celtics are far too talented that, even with injuries, this team should never endure a 17-0 run in which their offense consistently settles for good-not-great shots.

Concern meter: Four out of five shamrocks

No timeouts during opponents' runs

Look, we’re guilty of wondering if coach Joe Mazzulla could be more diligent with his timeout usage as the Celtics are fumbling away leads. The Celtics watched a 12-point lead evaporate Friday in Orlando, got a TV timeout, and still couldn’t stop the bleeding on the other side. So maybe Mazzulla is justified in letting his team try to collect itself and at least preserving timeouts for potential late-game scenarios.

The Celtics’ ability to complicate games is a pattern that stretches over three different coaches. Every coach has approached those woes differently, to varying results.

Ultimately, the core of this team has to better navigate the ebbs and flows of the game. We may not always agree with the coach’s decision to let his players twist in the wind,  particularly when they sometimes look like they are desperate for him to save them, but a lot of smart basketball minds haven’t figured out how to save this team from itself.

Concern meter: One out of five shamrocks

Second-chance points

Boston ranks among the league-leaders in preventing offensive rebounds this season -- and yet they've lost the battle in second-chance points in each of their last four games, fueling opponent rallies by being unable to secure the ball after initial stops.

Memphis, Charlotte, Milwaukee, and Orlando combined to average 20.3 second-chance points per game. That’s after Boston allowed just 11.4 second-chance points over its first 12 games.

The Celtics’ lack of pure size is well-documented. The team is leaning heavy on 37-year-old Al Horford and the oft-injured Kristaps Porzingis. That has thrust Luke Kornet into a hefty role, and Boston’s defensive rebound rate is a team-worst 69.6 when he’s on the court. 

We’ve long suspected the Celtics will examine options to add big-man depth before the trade deadline, if only to help ease the burden on their centers during the regular season. Kornet has had encouraging moments but second-chance opportunities have felt like back-breakers at times this season -- particularly when opponents are chipping away at runs.

Concern meter: Four out of five shamrocks

Iso offense

The Celtics rank fourth in the NBA with 9.1 percent of their finished offensive possessions coming out of isolation. Boston ranks eighth, averaging 1.0 points per play.

In a vacuum that’s not awful, especially for a team that finished in the back half of the league last season (0.91 points per play) in isolation. The concerning part is that it feels like the team gets especially iso-heavy when opponents make runs, instead of playing fast and moving the basketball. 

Yet again, this isn’t a new issue. The superstars of this team, especially the All-NBA tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, need to play faster and more decisive regardless of time and score.

Boston’s offense ranks eighth overall this season but 18th overall over the last two weeks, per Cleaning the Glass efficiency numbers. The Celtics need more consistency with their approach on the offensive end.

Concern meter: Three out of five shamrocks

Turnovers in focus

Turnovers famously plagued Boston during the 2022 playoffs. Things have been better in the aftermath, but Boston is now struggling to turn over opponents.

The Celtics rank 27th in opponent turnover percentage this season, per Cleaning the Glass data. Despite all of its defensive talent, Boston hasn't consistently been able to force opponents into the sort of miscues that might fuel easy scoring chances (and take pressure off the team’s half-court offense).

Concern meter: Three out of five shamrocks

Bench depth

Boston’s depth was a major concern out of the gates, particularly as Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, and Al Horford all struggled with their shots. All three have been better in recent games.

Considering the Celtics are unlikely to go beyond seven or eight players in the postseason, we’re confident in this group if the team stays healthy. But Boston most certainly has to ponder potential upgrades before the trade deadline, if only to help navigate the regular season and pace their core players.

Concern meter: Two out of five shamrocks

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