The arc of success in the NBA bends toward talent. It is why, at the end of the season, the Warriors will likely hoist their fourth Finals trophy in five years. But the nascent days of a new season, when teams are still trying to figure out all of the knobs on their new roster, have a way of leveling the playing field. Just ask the Boston Celtics. Their talent is undeniable, yet their offense through 11 games has been flat-out terrible. Even though Boston’s talent won out in a 116-109 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, it took a 22-point comeback to do so.
Brad Stevens says he told Igor Kokoskov after the game Boston didn't deserve to win the game.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) November 9, 2018
For nearly four quarters, the Celtics did all they could to hurt their chances of winning. They scored 35 points in the first half. The Celtics’ offensive struggles have been the story of their mediocre start to the season. Only the Hawks, Magic, and Suns rank below them in offensive efficiency. The Celtics weren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut last season, either, but they at least ranked a respectable 18th. Boston is currently averaging three fewer points per 100 possessions at a time when offenses are regularly putting up 120 and 130 a night. They’ve been able to lean on the league’s top-ranked defense to win seven of 11 games thus far, but the talent-laden team that was supposed to play like and maybe even push the Warriors looks more like the Grit ’n’ Grind Grizzlies through the season’s first few weeks.
The one bright spot was Kyrie Irving. After going through some struggles of his own to start the season, Irving finally looked like the offensive dynamo Boston traded for over a year ago. He finished with 39 points, 26 of which came in the final two quarters and overtime.
Aside from Jaylen Brown’s 14 points in the second half, the rest of Boston’s core was brutal. Al Horford had seven points on seven shots. Gordon Hayward had eight points on eight shots. Jayson Tatum finished with four points and scored his first bucket of the night with 5:30 left in the fourth quarter. The sophomore’s other two points came via garbage-time free throws. It was as though the rookie wall Tatum evaded most of last season only to finally come down on him all at once. By the end of the game, Tatum was relegated to setting screens for Irving like he was Aron Baynes.
With Hayward and Irving healthy and Brown and Tatum another year wiser, the Celtics were supposed to have so much talent that they could simply turn to the best player on a given night if the game got tight. It’s a strategy that’s worked for the Warriors (Thursday night’s 23-point blowout at the hands of the Bucks notwithstanding). But so far, the Celtics look a lot like the team that reeled off 16 straight wins early last season: They will go as far as Kyrie takes them.
When Boston needed a 3 to tie the game with 6.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Celtics got the ball into Kyrie’s hands. But it wasn’t Irving’s shot that forced overtime. The Celtics drew a crowd of defenders outside of the 3-point arc, and so he dished it off to Marcus Morris for a wide-open 3:
"It’s good to know that we’ve got some of that stuff we [had] last year in that locker room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
Of all the Celtics struggling to adjust to the team’s new reality, Stevens may be the most jarring. Just a year ago, he was the wunderkind coach with the magic dry-erase board. But maximizing talent is different than managing a team of stars. Stevens has already proved he can make a contender out of spare parts, but what can he make of a team with some of the best the league has to offer?
The Celtics have time to figure things out. It’s only November, and they’re going to keep preaching patience. But while Irving’s individual brilliance bailed them out on Thursday, they can’t rely on that every night—not against the types of teams they’ll need to beat to go farther than they did last postseason. Even talent has its limits.