WALTHAM, Mass. -- The Boston Celtics have struggled to consistently put the ball in the basket early in the regular season, so when Jae Crowder inadvertently banked home a 94-foot inbounds heave during Wednesday's loss to the Indiana Pacers, coach Brad Stevens could only shake his head and smile about maybe the NBA's most improbable turnover.
"After watching us struggle to throw the ball in the basket for two straight first halves, for that one to go in was kind of ironic," said Stevens.
The Celtics can't explain their early season shooting woes, but no one has been immune to it. Boston ranks 28th in the league while shooting just 40.1 percent from the field and 23rd overall while shooting 29.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Boston's primary backcourt trio of Isaiah Thomas (41.7 percent overall), Avery Bradley (41.2 percent), and Marcus Smart (38.7 percent) is struggling and they are among the team's best non-big man shooters thus far.
Smart sat out Wednesday's game due to a toe injury, but he knows the Celtics haven't been able to buy a basket at times this season.
"Oh man, we shot it horrible," said Smart. "Everyone knows it. The coaches know it, the players know it, and the world knows it. We understand we have to get better and knock down shots."
Stevens has maintained that he likes most of the shots the Celtics are getting, but emphasized after Thursday's practice that Boston has to do a better job at the start of games generating the sort of shots they are getting later in contests (when the team is typically trying to rally out of an early hole).
The players, while frustrated, believe things will change.
"Those shots are going to fall, we just have to keep shooting them and not let our confidence get too low," said Smart. "We got some great shots. We definitely have to make shots, but at the same time, we have to start the game with a pace that we did in the last couple minutes in the fourth quarter [against Indiana] and some of the third."
The thing about Boston's shooting is that the team is missing open shots. Examine the league's player-tracking data and Boston is middle of the pack shooting against tight defense (42.4 percent when a defender is 0-2 feet away; 46 percent when a defender is 2-4 feet away). When a defender is 4-6 feet away, the Celtics are shooting a league-worst 31.4 percent. That's impossibly low when you consider that the defending champion Golden State Warriors shoot 52.5 percent in those situations and the league average is north of 41 percent. When left completely open -- defenders more than 6 feet away) -- Boston is shooting 36.4 percent.
Even a rookie knows that the Celtics can't maintain those percentages.
"The law of averages says these guys are going to start making shots," said first-round pick R.J. Hunter, who made his debut in Indiana and could see time if he can show an ability to make shots.
Here's the flip side: The Celtics have shot the ball horribly, they have turned the ball over at an alarming rate (their turnover percentage is 16.5 percent, ranking 24th in the league), and yet they've still managed to hang around against some quality competition and at least give themselves a chance because of a top-10 defense (Boston is 10th in defensive rating while allowing 97.3 points per 100 possessions).
Stevens wants to see his team eliminate the sloppiness and generate better looks early in games and thinks the problem will solve itself.
"We’ve got to get tighter in our first halves. Our first halves have been poor," said Stevens, who juggled the starting lineup Wednesday in part because Smart is out with a toe injury. "We’ve turned the ball over. We have not gotten the same level of looks with the same amount of purpose that we have in the second [halves], especially the last two games ... That’s been pretty evident the last two games, so we have to do a better job of that. We were only on the court for 30 minutes [Thursday] and most of it was on offensive execution."