Late game struggles define Celtics' first 12 games; Where does the season go from here?
The Cavs were one of many teams to exploit
the Celtics' poor late-game execution.
If you came to me before the 2014-15 season began and told me that the Celtics will be drafting sixth overall once again come June, I would have believed you.
You could have also said that the Celtics will be the sixth-seed in the Eastern Conference, and put up a decent fight in a playoff series, and I would have bought that scenario too.
In short: We still don't know exactly how good this team is.
So after 12 games, it's no surprise that the Celtics are sitting at 4-8, especially given their tough road to begin the season. It feels as though they will win the games that they are suppose to win, and lose the games they are suppose to lose, for the most part.
However, it's how they're losing games that's the concern. Aside from the loss to the Thunder -- by far their worst outing of the season -- the Celtics have actually been rather consistent. They have lost by double figures on the road to Western Conference heavyweights in Houston and Memphis; but their other five losses have come by six points or less, all to playoff caliber opponents (Dallas, Toronto, Cleveland, Phoenix and Portland).
Briefly looking at Boston's four wins, the C's beat the Nets, Bulls and 76ers by a combine 32 points, while uncharacteristically defeating the Pacers by three points. The takeaway is that the Celtics are not good at winning close games. The reason why? They don't have late-game scoring options.
Paul Pierce once gave the C's a chance of winning close games for years, and now Brad Stevens is desperate for an option as reliable as Pierce once was for the green.
Rajon Rondo has been masterful in terms of running the offense to this point, but his struggles when the game is on the line have been evident this season. Finally fully healthy, Rondo is looking to distribute on key possessions, while his teammates are looking for their leader to score. Not a good combination.
Just take Sunday's game for example -- Boston's shot attempts down the stretch were brutal. Coming out of a timeout against the Blazers, Jeff Green (who has been significantly more consistent than we are used to) wound up launching a 30-footer with three seconds on the shot clock, while a later possession ended with Jared Sullinger taking a step-back 3-pointer off the dribble. Both were bad misses.
The issue of execution down the stretch has been lingering in the locker room after losses all season -- particularly following collapses at home against the Raptors, Cavs and Suns. When Stevens was asked if late-game execution is a concern, Stevens did't even try to spin any positives.
"I don't think there's any question [that there have been issues with late-game execution], yeah," said Stevens following the loss to Phoenix -- the third home loss in a row that the Celtics let slip away in the last minute. "I think that's a pretty easy one; it's easier said than done. I think the guys did a great job until, maybe, the last minute or so."
Rondo essentially echoed these thoughts, adding that it was "frustrating" and like "deja-vu" to keep coming up short in the final minute.
The long-term solution is simple: the Celtics need to add the one huge piece to the puzzle that they are missing. We know this. Obviously, it's easier said than done. That player doesn't appear to be out there at the moment. This past off-season, Kevin Love was considered the only obtainable piece in the league that fit that mold -- clearly that didn't work out in Boston's favor.
But going forward, in the short-term, the solution is to improve the pieces that they do have. The attitude surrounding this year's team is far different from last year. Players have even gone as far as admitting that the team may have laid down and given up last year, whereas this year's Celtics squad has a never-say-die mindset. Basically, the "T-word" is no longer in effect this season, it's time to see what a young, Rondo-led team can accomplish.
The C's will wrap up a brutal November schedule by playing the Bulls and Spurs at home this weekend -- the 10th and 11th playoff teams they will have faced this month. Even if the overmatched Celtics wind up 4-10 entering December, they could still find themselves a .500 team by the time 2015 rolls around.
The schedule eases up on them, and if Stevens' squad can string together some wins, there's no telling where that momentum and confidence could lead them. The 2013-14 Celtics may have given up after a November like this one; the 2014-15 Celtics will not.
Now, a full month into the season, we have learned that Rondo is indeed healthy. We have also learned that many of the young pieces around him have potential. But by no means have we learned how good the team actually is, only what they need to become complete.
The sixth pick as well as the sixth-seed are both still very much alive in my mind. December could be the make-or-break month that we find out which direction the Celtics' season takes.