Avery Bradley: Second unit 'owns us right now'

The Celtics' starters have struggled out of the gates, particularly on the offensive end this season. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley doesn't hide from what's been obvious through the team's first three games of the 2015-16 season: Boston's second-teamers are outplaying the first unit.

Heck, it's happening in practice, too. But a starting 5 that features Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, David Lee and Tyler Zeller is eager to snap out of a funk and Bradley believes the second unit can help that process.

"The good thing about practice, the second unit pushes us every single day," said Bradley. "To be honest, some days they beat us. They own us right now. It helps us improve and we know what we need to get better at and that’s the best thing about it."

The Celtics' starters have struggled out of the gates, particularly on the offensive end, and head coach Brad Stevens is walking a fine line between not overreacting to a small sample size and evaluating how to best deploy the players on a deep and even roster.

The Celtics enjoyed preseason success with that same starting lineup, one that Stevens assembled in his mind over the summer and used to great success during Boston's exhibition slate. But that first group has struggled to generate consistent offense now that the games matter and Stevens said he's constantly evaluating his pairings.

"I’m going to spend a lot less time being committed to a plan that was preconceived and a lot more time evaluating what’s going on," said Stevens. "Who is playing well, how they best complement each other, and everything else. If we can find some consistency in that, that’d be helpful.

"The one thing I don’t want to overreact to: We got beat by two good teams. We got beat by two good teams. Now, I wish we would have played better in both of those games, but we got beat by two good teams. And we’ll have to continue to figure our best self out, but I think we’re doing a lot of good things, too."

Stevens believes Boston's depth can be a weapon, but also admitted there's a unique challenge in determining a rotation when players have struggled to separate themselves. What's more, the Celtics like the idea of employing Isaiah Thomas -- the team's best offensive player -- in a reserve role and would seemingly be hesitant to move him to the first unit if they can otherwise fix their offensive issues. Meanwhile, the team has a logjam at the big man spots where Lee and Zeller haven't been nearly as crisp as the three guys playing behind them in Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk.

Boston's starting 5, which started four of the team's seven exhibition games, had an excellent preseason, especially on the offensive end. That much was hammered home by the fact that Zeller led the team in offensive rating with Boston putting up 111.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. In three regular-season games, Zeller's offensive rating has plummeted to 90.1 -- a dip of 21 points per 100 possessions.

That's not to pin Boston's struggles on Zeller. Boston's entire first unit has struggled when paired together. In 21 minutes of floor time this season, the group has a net rating of minus-26.9 points per 100 possessions with an absolutely anemic 66.6 offensive rating (the defense hasn't actually been that bad with a rating of 93.6). How can Boston fix those struggles?

"We have to move the ball a little more and attack the paint a little more," said Zeller, who played only 6 ½ minutes at the start of Sunday's loss to the Spurs and did not return. "It’s kind of on all of us. I got to roll to the rim and attack it a little more aggressively. We just have to be a little more aggressive. I think we settle for jump shots a little bit too much sometimes. If we can get to the rim, I think we can create a lot of problems [for defenses]."

Stevens has stressed that there's far too small of a sample size to overreact. When asked why preseason numbers for the first unit might be so different than the regular season, he offered, "Because you’re not playing [Tim] Duncan, [LaMarcus] Aldridge, and [Kawhi] Leonard for 40 minutes. That’s a lot different."

Boston's two losses came against teams that are 6-1 overall (Spurs and Raptors), but the Celtics were also slow out of the gates against the Philadelphia 76ers on opening night. Stevens simply wants his team to focus on playing and not get bogged down by the struggles.

"The bottom line, again, when things don’t go well for you, you have a tendency to get tight or try to hit home runs," said Stevens. "And, at that point, you probably should become even more focused on just doing little things and hitting singles. But that’s not human nature. ...

"I’m glad that we played the teams that we’ve played. They’ve stretched us, they’ve made us think, they’ve made us evaluate. And I think we’ll be in evaluation phase for a while longer."