Think about it for a second. It's only November, and the Celtics are running away with the NBA's Atlantic division. There's a cluster of five or six teams competing to be the best in the Eastern Conference, and the C's are right there in the thick of it. They're 5-1 on the road, including a signature victory over the mighty Cavaliers in Cleveland, and they're 6-3 against fellow East teams.
And they're panicking.
Last week, their losing funk hit three out of four games. On Sunday afternoon in New York, they needed a buzzer-beating jumper from Kevin Garnett to beat the Knicks — the 3-10 Knicks — in overtime.
These don't look like the same C's that began the season with a perfect 6-0 mark. They look slower, rustier, older. More than a couple weeks older.
The intensity isn't there on defense. The team's trademark first quarter — a stalwart defensive effort sending the Celtics into the first break with a lead of, say, 23-18 — is lacking something. The C's are erratic from possession to possession. One time down the floor, they're playing shut-down defense; the next, they're giving up easy buckets like they just don't care.
It's easy to freak out at a time like this and write the Celtics off as over the hill and no longer contending. Or there's the other possibility: resorting to an old basketball cliche.
The season's not a sprint. It's a marathon. And these Celtics are merely pacing themselves.
Given their personnel, you can't blame them. The Celtics are dominated by potent but aging stars — and with a limited amount of gas in the tank, sometimes you have to coast through November to hit the gas in April. This is all part of the plan.
Among Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rasheed Wallace, they've accumulated a total of just over 140,000 NBA minutes on their collective odometer. Most teams at that stage would have been scrapped and sold for parts. Not these C's. They're conserving their energy.
You watch them on a Sunday afternoon against the Knicks, for example, and you can tell they're only giving it 90 percent. KG isn't killing himself on every single possession defensively — he's going through the motions. Sheed isn't working to create the perfect scoring opportunity every time — he's jacking up shots. These are the November Celtics. Things will get better from here.
Even before the Celtics really crank up the energy, their results will improve by simple regression to the mean. Look at this team's shooting numbers: Last year, they led the NBA in three-point percentage, shooting 39.7 percent. This season, they've taken a huge hit, falling to 12th at 35.4 percent.
Across the board, everyone's slumping. The old Celtics (Allen, Eddie House) have fallen off big time since last season; the new guys (Wallace, Marquis Daniels) are taking some time to adjust as shooters. It's not that the Celtics aren't executing well or playing well — it's just that their shots aren't falling. When they do, the rest of the NBA should be afraid.
But all "slump" talk aside, the Celtics should be happy with where they are one month into the season. After an off month, they're only one game in back of the best record in the NBA, currently held jointly by Orlando and Phoenix. Give it a week, and that deficit could be gone.
Early-season jitters are a part of the game. But in Boston, the Celtics are hardly jittery. Life could be a lot worse than autopiloting to a 10-4 start.
It's been a month, and the Celtics are already among the cream of the NBA crop. Just wait until they really turn it on.
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