PORTLAND, Ore. — This season was supposed to be the Boston Celtics' coronation as the new kings of the Eastern Conference. With a returning core, two newly healthy All-Stars, one of the league's most highly regarded coaches and an exciting young group of prospects, the path looked clear for them to assert their dominance over the LeBron James-less East.
They may still get there. But in the early part of the season, Boston has taken a step back, struggling to keep up in an increasingly crowded field. The Celtics' deficiencies were laid bare over a 1-4 road trip that culminated in Sunday's 100-94 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. They return home with a 7-6 record and no shortage of questions as the teams they're fighting for conference supremacy grow more formidable.
Boston hasn't made shots consistently. After missing all but the first five minutes of last season with an ankle injury, Gordon Hayward has looked sluggish and rusty as he's felt his way back into a major role. Second-year forward Jayson Tatum's scoring has come around this week (he scored 27 on 9-of-18 shooting in Portland), but even that small piece of positive news was tempered by an off night for Kyrie Irving, who shot 9-of-24 from the field and 3-of-10 from three-point range.
Even when their offense has been effective, it's looked disjointed. In stretches, like the 13-2 run that kicked off the fourth quarter against Portland to eventually erase what was once a 21-point lead, the team appears to have it figured out. But the Celtics can't do it consistently and are just as prone to stretches like Sunday's second quarter, in which they were outscored 28-16.
"You find your flow by making the next right play," coach Brad Stevens said. "That's it. When you're in the game, you have a job to do on that possession, and you do it. … We're not there yet. To me, well-coached teams get there. We're not a well-coached team right now. That's pretty obvious."
Eager as Stevens was to throw his body in front of the Celtics' slow start, his coaching can't fully explain the poor shooting. As a team, Boston is getting 32.7 shots per game that NBA.com's tracking data classifies as "open," the most in the NBA. But the Celtics are shooting just 38.7 percent on those attempts, the league's third-worst mark.
"It's kind of a good thing with our record that we shoot the lowest [percentage] on open shots," Tatum said. "We're gonna hit open shots eventually. It's still pretty early. But I'm not trying to make any excuses. Guys will figure it out. Everyone in here is a professional."
"No excuses" was Marcus Smart's message to teammates after the game as they prepare to return to Boston following a dispiriting road trip. Everyone in the locker room knows this team should be better than it is.
The Celtics have depth up and down the roster, a respected coach, the league's best defense (even still) and a combination of youth, experience and star power. That made it easy during the preseason to pick them as the favorites to make the Finals and maybe even unseat the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
This road trip has served as a reality check.
"We come out, and clearly we outmatch teams at dang near every position," Irving said. "We have a lot of good players. And when I say 'outmatch,' I mean in terms of the groups that we have out there. We basically have a mismatch at every position every time out there down the floor. It comes with discipline. It comes with understanding. It comes with experience of being on a team like this."
Just 13 games into the season, there's time for the Celtics to turn things around. But if they take too long, they'll risk falling further behind than they already are. The Toronto Raptors (12-1) and Milwaukee Bucks (10-3) are rolling, and the Philadelphia 76ers pushed in all their chips over the weekend to add Jimmy Butler.
Whether or not the Celtics get their act together, the playoff race is going to be a tight one. If their shooting comes around and their offense finds itself, they can force their way back into a conversation they once controlled.
"When we're desperate and urgent, we're pretty good," Stevens said. "We just don't hunt great on offense until it's desperation time. We've spent a lot of time in desperation time on this trip. It's been a disappointing trip."
The trip's lone victory came against the hapless Phoenix Suns, and even that required erasing a 22-point deficit to win in overtime. Boston has trailed by at least 20 points in its last three games. Periodic stretches of good offensive execution haven't been enough to get the Celtics out of the holes they've dug themselves into.
In the best-case scenario, this road trip will serve as rock bottom, a reminder that all the preseason hype in the world won't save them when they aren't scoring consistently.
"We needed this," Irving said. "We're not as good as we think we are. That's really what it comes down to. The excitement is done. It's just real basketball now. It's not the potential of the team or where we'll be at the end of the season. It's right now and taking care of what's in front of us."