Celtics fans like to snicker about the Brooklyn Nets and their 0-5 start, because Boston is set to collect Brooklyn's unprotected pick in the 2016 draft. But the Celtics have only one win in four tries to start the 2015-16 season, and Brooklyn fans like to jab back that, at this rate, Boston can enjoy having the top two picks in next year's draft.
The Celtics currently project to have seven selections in the 2016 pick-a-palooza, including four possible first-round picks. But Boston will be perfectly content if its own pick is the worst of the bunch, because its goal this season is to take a step forward after a second-half surge to the playoffs during the 2014-15 campaign.
Right now, the Celtics are having a hard time just figuring out a rotation with a deep and even roster.
With Marcus Smart out due to a toe injury, coach Brad Stevens elected to shuffle things up a bit in Indianapolis on Wednesday, especially given how Boston's starters have struggled during the team's first three games. The Celtics ran with a first unit that included Thomas, Amir Johnson, and Jared Sullinger (in place of Smart, David Lee, and Tyler Zeller), and while Boston played encouraging basketball at times in the second half, the Pacers held on for a 100-98 triumph at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"We’ve gotta find guys that will give us the best chance of winning," Stevens told reporters after Wednesday's game. "And so that’s what we’re looking for all the time."
Echoed Thomas: "I don’t know what [is wrong], but we’ve got to figure it out sooner than later. I’m tired of losing. ... We’re not going to panic, but at the same time, changes need to be made."
Stevens was brief with his responses to most postgame queries, but he did allow that the Celtics played some of their most inspired offensive basketball of the season in the second half. In a span of 24 minutes, Boston scored 55 points on 43 shots while shooting 46.5 percent from the floor and 46.7 percent beyond the 3-point arc, all while limiting its giveaways.
The Celtics, however, might have simply been fortunate to even be in a position where Avery Bradley's step-back 3-point attempt in the closing seconds had a chance to push Boston ahead. The Celtics turned the ball over 19 times (leading to 22 points) and allowed Indiana to grab 21 offensive rebounds (leading to 24 second-chance points).
"You can’t win if you get beat on the glass and turn it over like that," Stevens said.
The Celtics were left to wonder what could have been if Bradley's late shot dropped, or if rookie R.J. Hunter's fourth-quarter baseline floater hadn't been waved off on a questionable charging call, or if Jae Crowder's 94-foot banked-in heave could have been more than the NBA's most jaw-dropping turnover.
Alas, Boston is 1-3 with the 3-1 Washington Wizards set to visit on Friday night. The Celtics are enduring a stretch of 10 straight games against potential playoff teams (slow starts for the Pacers and Bucks, notwithstanding) before those Nets visit TD Garden on Nov. 20. As Bradley stressed after Wednesday's game, Boston doesn't want to look back and wonder what could have been because of close games that slipped away.
Stevens utilized all 12 players available on Wednesday, including the longest court time of the season for rookie first-round picks Terry Rozier (0-for-4 shooting, 0 points, 5 rebounds over 6:09) and Hunter (1-for-2 shooting, 2 points, team-high plus-8 in plus/minus over 12:41). But in the second half, Stevens tightened to a nine-man rotation (Rozier, Kelly Olynyk and Zeller did not play after the intermission, while Johnson was available but sat after twisting his ankle.)
"We finally started moving the basketball a little bit and looking like much better offensively, so that was the best part about the second half for me, is we looked a little bit like a basketball team on offense," said Stevens.
As Thomas told reporters, "We played well, but well isn't good enough in this league."