BOSTON — Avery Bradley can be forgiven for forgetting that, unlike him, his Celtics teammates were not playing their first organized basketball game in more than seven months on Wednesday. In talking about his pain-free return from double-shoulder surgery, the third-year guard struck some of the same tones his teammates were using weeks ago.
“We’ve just got to find ourselves as a team,” Bradley said. “Everybody has to know their roles and know what we have to do and learn the sets. All that will come. We’re not really worried about that. We’ve just got to keep improving every game. It’s early in the year.”
And yet, it is not. The rest of the Celtics had a 30-game head start on Bradley before Wednesday’s 93-83 loss to the Grizzlies in a game that was not even that close. Talk of the season being young is outdated — two weeks from Tuesday, the Celtics will visit the Cavaliers for game No. 41, the official midpoint of the schedule. Knowing roles and learning sets, while always a work in progress, are not typically this far from the grasp of a contending club by now.
Bradley’s return was looked upon hopefully as the boost the Celtics needed to regain their contending form of the past five years. Instead, his return served as a reminder that for all Bradley’s brilliance as an on-ball pest, one player cannot cure the Celtics’ deep-rooted ills.
“I thought, honestly, with him on the floor early on, the whole defense was pretty good,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after taking an unusually long time to arrive in the press room after the game. “Then it went back to Avery playing great defense and us giving up straight line-drives at the end of the shot clock, away from him, and that hurt us.”
Two problems, one on each end of the court, were apparent for the Celtics in the loss. Defensively, they could not get a defensive stop to complete their comebacks after they had pushed back from large deficits. (Mike Conley, who finished with a game-high 23 points to go along with nine assists, stopped more Celtics runs with a timely bucket than were worth counting.) Offensively, they would close the gap with ball movement and good looks, then resort to impatient offense generating low-percentage shots out of one pass or even zero passes.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett claimed the Celtics generated shots they liked, and more often than not that may have been true. But those quality looks did not come consistently, or at the times they were most needed. In the fourth quarter, after Jason Terry drained back-to-back 3-pointers to help Boston close within five points, the Celtics proceeded to create a heavily contested layup by Jared Sullinger at the end of the shot clock, then a long three by Rajon Rondo that caromed off the side of the rim. It was not the type of offense often associated with a seasoned team loaded with big-game experience.
“We didn’t play like a veteran team,” Rivers said. “We played like a really young team that was rushed, and that’s what happens when you’re not winning games.”
As the losses have gotten more repetitive, the easy movie analogy for this Celtics season is Groundhog Day. A more appropriate cinematic analogy might be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, because the Celtics seem to get less experienced with each passing day. Champions and veterans are playing like rookies. A full 31 games into the season, some players are still saying it’s early. At this rate, the Celtics may end up playing their season opener in late April — around the same time their actual season, devoid of a playoff berth, ends.