Exasperated and hardly beaming after a 100-94 overtime victory over the Washington Wizards Wednesday night at TD Garden, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said the best thing was the win itself, nothing more.
The Celtics wanted to get off to a positive start this season, definitely one better than last season’s 5-9 start, during which they looked completely unprepared following the lockout.
Rajon Rondo, the anointed team leader, points to Sept. 4 as a critical date for the development of this retooled Celtics club. That’s when many members of the team showed up in Waltham and played intense pickup games, attempting to develop chemistry and get a jump start on the new season.
But it seems regardless of how many offseason workouts that attempt to simulate real practices, no matter how much hanging out and bonding teammates do, and how much players rehearse game situations, nothing compares with actual NBA games. That’s when chemistry is built.
At 2-2, the Celtics hardly look capable of making a title run, but it’s still early November and there is plenty of time to gain cohesion and develop into a contender. On Wednesday night the Celtics flirted with putting Washington away early, lost their edge, regained it, and then wasted an 11-point lead with 10:10 left.
The Wizards are hanging on until John Wall and Nene return. They are starting a 19-year-old at shooting guard, a journeyman point guard, a center who has never lived up to his potential, and an undersized power forward. And yet they made the Celtics sweat for the second time in four days.
While an inspired effort in their home opener Saturday night was expected, the Wizards responded again Wednesday night by playing tougher and grittier than the Celtics. They outworked the home team in many stretches as the question of consistently playing hard surfaced again for Boston.
It’s pretty apparent the Celtics miss Ray Allen right now. Not to say they’ll miss him in April when Jason Terry, Leandro Barbosa, and Courtney Lee are more comfortable, but for now, they lack a dependable third scorer.
Lee was given the starting job at shooting guard, at least until Avery Bradley returns, but his transition to big-time basketball, in which every game carries extra significance, is a work in progress at best. He was 0-for-3 shooting Wednesday with 2 points in 18:36. He did not play in the fourth quarter or overtime, and any starting shooting guard should consider that an insult. Lee has attempted just 23 shots in four games, averaging 6 points and one assist. Even at Allen’s advanced age, it’s safe to assume he would have doubled those numbers.
For the Celtics to emerge as an imposing team in the Eastern Conference, Lee has to be more aggressive and productive. He was saved Wednesday by a vintage scoring night from Jason Terry, who poured in 16 points in 32 minutes and drained two 3-pointers.
Terry is easily capable of those type of nights but he can’t be relied upon to produce that way every night. Paul Pierce struggled all evening, missing 10 of his 12 shots and resorting to launching 3-pointers. He helped out with 10 rebounds and four steals, but the Celtics need newcomer Lee and relative newcomer Jeff Green to quickly learn the system and erase the jitters.
The Celtics were ecstatic to get Lee through a sign-and-trade with the Houston Rockets, and he is considered an above-average shooter. But his season so far was summed up in a nutshell at the end of the first half when he got a clean look from the 3-point line and missed badly at the buzzer.
He did not attempt a shot in 5:35 of the third quarter and sat the rest of the game. Luckily the Celtics had enough left to prevail against the Wizards, but they can’t consistently rely on their trio of mid-thirty somethings (Kevin Garnett, Pierce, and Terry) to drop 20. Lee and Green, who scored 6 points in nearly 22 minutes, need to offer assistance immediately.
“A lot of it still is they’re in thought and it’s hard to play in thought,” Rivers said. “And I’m trying to unlock them so they can just go out and play. You’re hoping someone: Jeff, Brandon [Bass], Kevin, Jet [Terry]. Last year when one of our guys were off, we were in trouble. This year, I’m hoping that when one of our guys are off, you’ve got someone else to pick it up. Rondo’s going to score this year, too, so that’ll help a little bit.”
But this was a not a win to be proud of, not a major step forward. The Celtics played probably their best game of the season in the opener against Miami. They have been shoddy in the three games since, but the early season is the best time for mistakes and development.
Yet this process can’t go on too long. The newcomers need to become themselves and get over the pressure and intense atmosphere of Boston. When that happens, Rivers will be a little prouder of his victories.