What’s behind the Celtics’ shaky start?

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By Dan Treacy
Boston University News Service

Any high expectations for the Celtics this season might need adjusting as Boston tries to improve on its 4-6 record, a stretch that included a pair of overtime losses, a players-only meeting, and too many missed shots.

The 2021-22 season started with renewed expectations, after an offseason that included Brad Stevens’ move to the front office, Ime Udoka joining as head coach and plenty of player transactions.

Those expectations have been put on hold. Boston struggled to a 2-5 record through its first seven games, which included a pair of overtime losses, a players-only meeting, and many missed shots.

The Celtics have recovered a bit this week, defeating the Magic and Heat on consecutive nights to right the ship a bit. Still, the team’s biggest problem has yet to be solved.

The season seemingly hit an early rock-bottom on Monday, Nov. 1, when the Celtics blew a 19-point lead in the second half and lost to the Bulls. Chicago won 128-114, representing a 33-point swing from the final minutes of the third quarter to the end of the fourth.

After the game, point guard Marcus Smart singled out all-stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, saying, “they don’t want to pass the ball.” Smart explained that teams are expecting the duo to take most of the shots and said they need to “learn” to pass. 

These comments were addressed in a players-only meeting ahead of Wednesday’s win over the Magic. While details are limited, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim Bontemps reported the meeting was “emotional at times,” and Brown later told the media that Smart’s comments were “something that we probably didn’t need.” 

The issues with this Celtics team range beyond just one player, but the buck stops with Tatum. Once thought to be a potential MVP contender heading into the season, Tatum is shooting just 37.3% from the field through eight games, including 27.1% from three-point range — he didn’t shoot under 45% in any of his first four NBA seasons. 

Tatum began the season with a 7-for-30 shooting performance against the Knicks, bouncing back in the following three games but struggling mightily as of late. Even in the Celtics’ wins over the Magic and Heat on consecutive nights last week, Tatum shot a combined 7-for-29.

Brown had shaky performances himself, including 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting in a loss to the Wizards, but he’s shot over 50% from the field in five of his eight games. Brown isn’t the problem with this team, and a hamstring injury expected to keep him out 1-2 weeks has increased the pressure on Tatum.

Smart publicly called for players not named Tatum or Brown to receive more shots, but the rest of the group has struggled to prove it deserves those opportunities. Smart himself is shooting only 30.6% from the field this season, while offseason acquisition Josh Richardson is averaging a mere 6.7 points per game and shooting 33.3% from behind the arc to this point. 

If the Celtics are looking for an offensive spark, they may want to look toward second-year guard Aaron Nesmith. Nesmith looked like he would be part of Udoka’s rotation on opening night, but he was a healthy scratch less than a week later after missing his first 10 shot attempts of the season. 

In all, Nesmith played a total of fewerf than four minutes in the five-game stretch that began with his healthy scratch on Oct. 25, but he flashed his ability with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting in Thursday’s win over the Heat.

Nesmith was selected 14th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, largely due to his three-point shooting. The Celtics, struggling from behind the arc, might as well let him work through his struggles and see if he can find his shooting stroke. If his performance against Miami is any indication, the potential is very much there.

Udoka also needs more out of second-year guard Payton Pritchard, who has seen his minutes tick down from 19.2 per game last season to 11.7 per game this season. Pritchard has struggled offensively, shooting 29.6% from the field, and he earned a healthy scratch himself last week. 

Nesmith and Pritchard are supposed to be impact shooters, but both have taken larger steps backward rather than forward, so far in what was expected to be a season of progress. 

It takes more than a few factors to play winning basketball, but making shots is an absolute must. The Celtics simply haven’t made enough. The struggles of one or two players would not be anything to worry about so early in the season, but to this point, shooting struggles have been team-wide. 

As of Nov. 9, the Celtics are 24th in the NBA in field goal percentage. Only one team below them has a winning record, and three of the six teams below them are mired in a rebuild without any expectation of playoff contention. 

The big men are doing their part for the Celtics. Boston leads the league in blocks per game with 6.7 and remains in the top half of the East in rebounds per game with 45.5. On the offensive end, this looks like a team too reliant on its stars. 

When Tatum or Brown is struggling, who will pick up the slack? To this point, no one has consistently answered the bell, and fixing that will be the first major challenge of Ime Udoka’s tenure in Boston. 

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