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The Celtics Didn’t Get the Memo About the NBA Scoring Boom

Boston added Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a team that went to the Eastern Conference finals, and the result is … one of the worst offenses in the NBA

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

This story does not have a happy ending, at least not tonight. It starts with Jayson Tatum plucking a defensive rebound out of the air and making a beeline to the basket. The Celtics were down four to the Orlando Magic on Monday night, with just under eight minutes left in the game. Tatum drove with confidence (and blinders) and tried a running floater that rattled out. Tatum was there for the rebound and the tip-in, except he missed that too. Daniel Theis grabbed the offensive board and was promptly blocked by Mo Bamba. Marcus Smart grabbed the third rebound of the possession and passed it to Jaylen Brown. Brown traveled and the possession was over. Good riddance.

The Celtics lost to the Magic 93–90 after Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward missed potentially game-tying 3s on the final possession, which went about as well as the one I described above. Boston scored only 20 points in the fourth quarter, missing 17 shots in the frame. The Celtics offense looked discombobulated, like they were trying to do too much while also not doing enough.

Boston is 2–2 and it looks like this will be a heavier lift than expected for Brad Stevens. Boston’s defense is fine — second best in the league, with all small-sample-size caveats attached — and has been the catalyst for its two wins. It has kept them in games they would have otherwise shot themselves out of. That’s where the problem is: The offense has been pedestrian at best, and even worse when you look at the rest of the league: Boston ranks second to last in offensive efficiency so far.

Adding a healthy Hayward and Irving to a team that went to the Eastern Conference finals was supposed to give Stevens an embarrassment of riches. I was in the camp that said it would take them longer than expected to figure it all out, but after their opening-night win against the Sixers, in which Tatum looked like Kobe-in-green and the Celtics looked like the better team top to bottom, I thought maybe I was wrong.

I look more right now; the question is whether I’ll be right in the end. If a team wants to score 100 points this season, all it has to do is show up to work. Everyone from the Pelicans to the Kings and even the Hawks is putting up booming offensive numbers. Everyone except the Celtics. They’re the only squad averaging under 100 points. Every Celtic aside from the adaptable Al Horford looks like he’s trying to find his footing. Tatum has a marvelous rookie year to top; Brown has to go from a featured role last season to being a role player this campaign; and Irving, well, he’s supposed to be the best player on the team, but hasn’t looked the part so far. Tatum has been the lead scorer in both wins.

At least they’re excelling on defense, where it seems like the players are more cogs in a system than individual parts trying to work out the early-season kinks. In four games, Tatum (who shot 43 percent from 3 last season) is shooting 26 percent from 3, while Irving is shooting 18 percent. Three of their top four 3-point shooters right now are bench players. No wonder they can barely crack 100.

“We have a lot of work to do, but I have no doubt we’ll figure it out,” Hayward said after the loss Monday. In the same interview, he also said his ankle was sore and likely will be for a while.

The Celtics will figure it out. They’re too talented not to. What will be fascinating is to watch them adapt to their new identity. This is no longer a pugnacious underdog, coached by the man who would be president (if the only person who voted were Bill Simmons). This is the deepest, most talented team in the East. They’re not going to take anyone by surprise. They’re not going to get extra credit because they made Aron Baynes useful. They were very good last season. Now they have to learn how to be what everyone expects them to be: They’ve got to be great.