Celtics still a mystery after first quarter of season


With nearly a quarter of the season in the rearview mirror, the Boston Celtics remain a bit of a mystery.

On one hand, Boston is a team that navigated a stream of early-season injuries and still posted a 12-8 record. The Celtics currently sit just two games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. On the other hand, Boston lacks a truly defining victory this season, struggles with mediocre competition, and is just two games away from being the 10th best team in the East.

Boston’s defense was impossibly bad over the first seven games of the season and the Celtics ranked dead last with a defensive rating of 112.3 on Nov. 9. Since that point, Boston ranks seventh in the league with a defensive rating of 101 and improved health seems to have helped them reestablish a bit of their defense-first identity.

It’s impossible to know what these Celtics truly are or what they might become. Boston has rarely put together a full 48-minute effort and sweats out wins against subpar competition as emphasized during this weekend’s back-to-back wins against the Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers without Joel Embiid.

Boston’s schedule is about to crank into overdrive. The Celtics play nine of their next 14 games on the road, including visits to four of the current top six teams in the West over the next two weeks. A return trip to Cleveland, where Boston lost in early November, looms at the end of the month.

The Celtics are going to have to play better than they have lately to keep their heads above water. Despite winning six of their last eight, Boston’s play hasn’t inspired much confidence. The Celtics have won five straight away from TD Garden, but the combined records of those five teams entering Sunday’s action was 33-67 (.330 winning percentage).

On Monday, the Celtics drop in on a Rockets team that went 4-1 on a recent five-game road trip that included a double-overtime victory over Golden State. The Rockets own the third-best offensive rating in the league and sit seventh in net rating (plus-3.3). For sake of comparison, Boston is 12th in the league in net rating at plus-2.0 (but has the potential to elevate higher as its defensive rating stabilizes).

Boston debuted at No. 5 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index before the season and was projected at 50.5 wins. The Celtics currently stand at No. 9 and project at 47.5 wins and the No. 4 spot in the East. Boston will be BPI underdogs in four of their next five games. The better news for Boston: The Celtics are favored in 10 of the 13 games that come after.

What is known about Boston to this point? Well, Al Horford has been spectacular in the 10 games he’s played and Boston is 7-3 in those games. Isaiah Thomas has been one of the league’s top scorers, and his fourth-quarter exploits have Brad Stevens suggesting that out-of-towners should purchase League Pass to watch him play.

But Boston’s bench has been inconsistent at best, and Stevens is still toying with ways to maximize his talent. Lately, he’s tried to stagger Thomas and Horford, while also experimenting with lineups in hopes of finding the right combinations. Rebounding remains a major concern for the smallest team in the league. Jae Crowder is still working his way back to form after an ankle injury, Jaylen Brown is riding the sort of roller coaster that you’d expect from a 20-year-old rookie, and Marcus Smart mixes moments of sheer brilliance with head-slapping shot selection. Smart has helped enough to overlook that he’s third on the team in field goals attempted despite shooting 34.9 percent overall.

 Before Saturday’s game in Philadelphia, Sixers coach Brett Brown suggested that Boston was a step ahead of where it was a year ago. Maybe he was just being nice because he likely meant in terms of potential rather than reality. Boston was 11-9 through its first 20 games last season (and was actually a .500 team through mid-January before finally taking flight).

The frustrations for Celtics fans stem largely from the fact that because Boston brought back much of its core and added an All-Star talent in Horford, the expectation was that this team would hit the ground running. That hasn’t happened — in large part because of injuries like the concussion that sidelined Horford for nine games — but the question remains how good this Celtics team can be now that it has all its horses.

These next two weeks could go a long way toward determining that. Stevens is encouraged by the recent progress but he understands his team has strides to make. Fortunately for his players, Stevens always keeps his focus on where the team wants to be as opposed to where it currently stands.

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