For the first time in six years, the Celtics have started 2-3 to open the season. Expectations for this team might not be as high as they were over the past couple of seasons, but winning is obviously still a priority in Boston. There has already been a handful of notable performances to go along with the pair of wins, but some troubling trends are already emerging in the young season.
The Good: A Rejuvenated Al Horford
Al Horford is already proving to be a valuable piece for the Celtics when he’s been on the floor. He appeared to be at the tail end of his career in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia, but looks as comfortable as ever back in Boston. It’s his second stint in Beantown, and the first one made fans fall in love with the veteran big man. Horford averaged 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists in his first three seasons with the Celtics and was named an All-Star in 2018.
Horford has been active for three of the first five games and posted a double-double in each of his appearances so far. He missed the season opener on Oct. 20 due to COVID-19 protocols and sat out Monday’s game against the Hornets due to a hip injury. He appears to be on a bit of a minutes restriction, playing no more than 26 minutes in two of his three appearances. After all, Horford is now 35 years old and has missed the better half of the past two years with nagging knee injuries, so it’s easy to see why a minutes restriction would be in place.
When active, Horford looks extremely crisp and is providing efficient contributions to a team that needs a leader. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the centerpieces of this team, but Horford brings a veteran leadership style that can’t be replicated by anyone else. It’s likely that Ime Udoka will continue to cautiously manage his minutes, but it’s refreshing to see that Horford’s return is off to a good start.
The Bad: Jaylen Brown’s Early Inconsistency
After erupting for 46 points in the season opener against the Knicks, Brown has been bouncing back-and-forth between the floor and the ceiling in terms of his production. The 6-foot-6 guard quietly had nine points just two nights later against Toronto, going 3-for-13 from the field. He responded with 30 points, nine rebounds and shot 12-for-20 in the overtime win against the Hornets, but went cold once again in the loss to the Wizards on Wednesday night, posting just 13 points.
You have to suspect that Brown is eventually going to come around, but so far his inconsistency has plagued the Celtics in two of their three losses. It’s been something that Udoka has even picked up on just a week and a half into his tenure.
“I’m trying to ramp him up during the game, you know pump him up to get going,” Udoka said following Wednesday’s loss against the Wizards. “The contrast of some of those previous games, especially Charlotte and the New York game, and then the way you see him come out tonight is kind of mind-boggling.”
Brown was out for 10 days due to a positive COVID-19 test and was also dealing with a knee injury that sidelined him for the Houston game, so either one of those things could be what’s causing his numbers to fluctuate. Luckily Brown has shown in the past that he can consistently play at a high level, so it’s likely just a matter of time before things click for the former third-overall pick.
The Ugly: Lack of Effort on Both Sides of the Ball
The most concerning issue that has arose in the early season is the lack of energy the Celtics have shown on both sides of the ball.
Boston was on the losing end of the rebounding battle in all three of its losses and finds itself at 16th in the NBA in average rebounds per game with 46.2. Although they should be a defensive-minded team with players like Marcus Smart, Josh Richardson, Robert Williams III, Brown and Tatum, the Celtics allow the second-most points per game (119) as of Oct. 28.
“We should never be questioning energy and effort. That should never be something,” Horford said following Wednesday’s loss. “We’re playing for something big here and we just have to make sure that we’re all on the same page and we’re all committed to it.”
Udoka brings a new coaching style with him to Boston, one that the majority of this team is going to have to adjust to. He is certainly more stern than Brad Stevens was, and he seems to not tolerate mental mistakes. Celtics players wanted a harder coach, and they got one. For the younger players, it is likely going to take some time getting used to Udoka’s tough-love approach, but it’s going to be an approach that could truly work in the long run.
The Celtics will travel to Washington to try and get revenge on the Wizards on Saturday before making a one-game pit stop at home against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 1. Boston then opens up a three-game road trip that features two conference opponents in the Magic and Heat as well as a meeting with Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on Nov. 6.
Photo: Charles Krupa/AP Photo