CHICAGO — The season is no longer young. We’re 28 percent into the Celtics’ campaign and no one in the organization expected just 12 wins in that span.
The Celtics spent training camp telling us about intense workouts in Waltham that began right after Labor Day. And the ones at UCLA when Los Angeles residents Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett participated. This was designed for a fast start. The Celtics said they learned their lesson from 2011-12, when a 5-9 start was critical to their fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Obviously, the significance of chemistry and cohesion was underestimated in this case. The Celtics are a scattered team, clicking one quarter, uninterested the next, and fatigued the next.
After Saturday’s 103-88 loss to San Antonio, Rivers dropped a doozy. He said he thought his team was out of shape, unable to corral the Spurs’ frantic pace, and it showed. The Spurs turned virtually every missed Celtics’ shot into an open 3-point attempt.
If the Celtics are out of shape 23 games into the season, it could take 10 more games to develop the endurance necessary to play at the pace they want. Getting into shape during an NBA season is a difficult endeavor. It means practicing so arduously it may result in wobbly legs during games.
The question is whether the Celtics are actually capable of making a deep playoff run. There is growing frustration with the team’s inconsistency and whether the aging Pierce and Garnett have enough support from those offseason acquisitions expected to produce on nights when the duo is weary or erratic.
The past two games are perfect examples. Pierce was a combined 12-for-31 shooting, including a loss at Houston, and Garnett was not active offensively because of fatigue. He attempted just 25 shots in the two games, scoring 14 and 13 points.
This was a perfect opportunity for Jeff Green and Courtney Lee to respond with good offensive games, but neither did. Lee started both and scored 19 total points in 57 minutes. Green scored 19 total points in 56 minutes.
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge signed the duo to four-year contracts for the purpose of them eventually taking over for Pierce and Garnett, and providing relief when the duo is unable to carry the scoring load.
The Celtics got considerably younger in the offseason, but they have yet to determine whether it’s better. Lee and Green are simply blending into their complementary roles, but they need to seize the opportunity for more offensive chances.
The shadow of Pierce and Garnett is rather imposing for some younger players, and the Celtics are finding out that not every emerging player is ready for the Celtics’ spotlight. There’s a difference playing in Boston as opposed to nearly any other NBA city. Every regular-season game is important, and perhaps Ainge overestimated the time it would take for Green and Lee to become comfortable.
While E’Twaun Moore is developing into a dependable scorer in Orlando, Lee has scored in double figures in five of 23 games and is averaging a career-worst 5.9 points. Earlier in the season, Rivers was forced to insert Jason Terry into the starting lineup for more offensive punch, giving the Celtics three starters 35 or older.
That completely threw the rotation and Rivers’s vision of a more offensively productive bench out of whack. Terry can score in bunches off the bench, evidenced by his 30 total points over the past two games. Lee has not provided that scoring, meaning the Celtics are in the same spot as last season, when the reserves could defend but not score.
Lee’s struggles have been momentous because the Celtics gave up Moore to get him. And Ray Allen is averaging 12.1 points and shooting nearly 50 percent coming off the Miami bench. Allen has hit 39 3-pointers for the Heat. Lee has 10 3-pointers for the Celtics.
Although buyer’s remorse is useless at this point, it’s not too late for Lee to begin responding. But if being a front-line player is not in Lee’s nature, then the Celtics invested in a player who is content with being a fourth or fifth option. The great players are greedy. They want to take big shots. They want to carry the offense. They want the glory that comes from being a star.
And then there are those who are satisfied just doing their part because taking clutch shots or rising in those critical moments is too much of a risk. The Celtics have to realize that maybe the Pierces and Garnetts come once a generation.
There is still hope. The Celtics have talent but they have to seek more consistency and accountability from their younger players, the ones supposed to be approaching their prime. Those guys shouldn’t be out of shape nor should they be afraid to seize the moment and truly become a Celtic. There is 59 games left in the regular season, so the opportunity is there.
“If we play like [Saturday against San Antonio], we’ll win a lot of games,” Rivers said. “We’ll win more than two games in a row at some point. We’re just not there yet and we have to get there. And I told our guys, ‘enough of saying we’re not there. We have to get there.’ ”