USA Today Sports

The Celtics' conversation has officially changed

Rob Bradford
November 25, 2018 - 6:31 am

The easiest thing to say about these Celtics is that it's undoubtedly going to get better. OK. Fair enough. You have the level of talent this team possesses that's not exactly a leap of faith considering Brad Stevens' team sits at 10-10, having lost eight of its last 12 games following the latest debacle -- a 113-104 loss to the Mavericks in Dallas. (For a complete recap, click here.)

But what if it doesn't?

"I don't know," Marcus Smart told reporters when asked how things were going to fix themselves. "That's the problem. If I knew, we wouldn't be having this discussion, right? Once we figure that out, things will start changing. But until then, we're going to continue to get our ass whooped."

The record is obviously a far cry from where the Celtics sat after 20 games last season when they began the campaign at 17-3. And it isn't that far off from the 12-8 start the 2016-17 team experienced before ultimately losing in the Eastern Conference finals. But this feels different. 

Expectations are one thing. Reality is another.

We can keep looking at games like the one in Dallas -- which Gordon Hayward sat out as part of his re-entry plan into a full season -- and think it's just a matter of early-season awkwardness. But the bigger issues have to be how individual players are playing. In order for the Celtics to reach that elite status so many expected they were going to have to get equal if not better performances from the returners. Other than a few exceptions, that simply isn't happening.

Al Horford might be dealing with a balky knee, but the image he continues to portray is nothing like the straw that stirred the drink throughout last season's postseason run. Points, rebounds and assists per game are all down from the 2017-18 run, while the big man's ability to facilitate hasn't offered the kind of weapon that previously put so many teams on their heels.

Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier were supposed to be the shining examples of players who were going to take their games to another level, pushing the Celtics' win total up in the process. Neither has happened. While he was one of the positives in the C's latest loss (16 points), Brown has looked out sync virtually all season, also down in every major offensive statistical category.

Rozier was going to be the offensive weapon off the bench, a luxury Stevens' teams rarely possessed. Well, he has scored more than 12 points just twice this season, finishing with four or fewer points in four of his last six games. Semi Ojeleye got more minutes against the Mavericks than Scary Terry (17 minutes).

As was evident once again Saturday night this is a team that seems to be defaulting more and more to Kyrie Irving's isolations. That wasn't the blueprint.

Remember those t-shirts with Marcus Morris' "BWA" (Bench With Attitude) slogan on them? They are headed to bargain bin status. The C's reserves are 16th overall in points per game with the 24th-best shooting percentage in the ninth-most minutes. They ]certainly aren't striking the kind of fear into the hearts of their opponents so many were counting on.

The point is that either some of these players start evolving like so many were expecting or this whole thing won't work. If the aforementioned pieces -- along with Hayward and, to a lesser extent, Jayson Tatum -- don't start raising their games than the skill-sets of Aaron Baynes, Morris and Smart don't really mean as much.

There have been a lot of road games, the most in the Eastern Conference in fact (12). And there are plenty of examples of teams turning, with last season's Eastern Conference champs, the Cavaliers, having started their season at 5-7 before finding their way. But ...

"We keep saying and doing the same thing after every game," Smart told reporters. "It's getting real annoying. I don't even know what to say to you guys at this point."

Smart's right, there have been way too many words. Better than Golden State. Rings upon rings. Best bench in the Association. An embarrassment of riches. The narrative officially needs an adjustment. Now it's up to the Celtics to do what they were so good at a season ago -- proving people wrong.