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‘The Most Miserable 8-2 Team You’ve Ever Seen’

That was Doc Rivers [1] after the Celtics [2] 94-85 loss to the Nuggets, Friday night. Miserable because, as Rivers elaborated, “We’re not happy with the way we’re playing. We’re winning games, but we’re not playing well enough to be the winner.”

There are those who will say it was bound to happen. That after seven games in 10 days, and two epic fourth-quarter rallies this week that the legs just weren’t there and that the signs of fatigue were evident: slow rotations, short jumpers, etc. To their credit, the Celtics won’t say it: “We’re not going to use fatigue as an excuse,” Kevin Garnett [3] said like it was a mantra.

And to an extent, KG is right. Fatigue, while certainly a factor, is not an excuse. Not in this league. Not when the Nuggets flew in from a big game with Cleveland in the wee hours of the morning. There are other issues for the Celtics to concern themselves with. Issues that are somewhat more befitting a team that is 4-6, rather than a ‘miserable’ 8-2.

1. Poor starts are a symptom of a large ailment: The offense is stuck in neutral. The slow starts gave way Friday to a 6-0 run to start the game and a 29-23 lead after one quarter. Good for the starting five who have been strangely out of sync since the season began. But, after eight impressive outings, the bench had its second straight blah game.

The problem isn’t poor starts or sloppy reserve play. The problem is the offense is dragging. The Celtics rank in the bottom third in points per game, shooting percentage and came into the night dead last in 3-point shooting, a number that should rise a tick after going 10-for-25 against Denver.

Looking deeper, their assist ratio is low, their turnover ratio is high and their offensive efficiency ranks with Milwaukee, Charlotte and Memphis–not exactly a group one wants to be associated with.

2. So, how are they 8-2? Defense of course, which remains a constant. Garnett maintains that their defense leads to their offense, which is true to some extent and the focus on the defensive end is admirable and justified. But…

3. What’s with the huge nights from the likes of Jermaine O’Neal [4] and Kenyon Martin [5]? The two highly-paid, vaguely disappointing big men have lit the Celtics up this week. Martin played like the guy who came out of the University of Cincinnati eight long years ago with 16 points and several difference-making plays down the stretch.

“He did things we hadn’t seen on tape,” Garnett said echoing a similar refrain that he had about O’Neal. “But he’s in the league and he does get paid.”

The superficial answer is that this is what happens to defending champions. Players bring their A Game, so to speak. There’s some truth to that, but the deeper issue is that the Celtics are having some breakdowns on the weak side. That’s correctable and likely a short-lived phenomenon.

4. Oddly, the Celtics have yet to put together a full 48-minute dominant game this season. With the possible exception of the Chicago game, the Celtics have been living on the edge. Even the wins over Oklahoma City and Milwaukee required some degree of fourth-quarter heavy lifting to pull away. “We’re playing in spurts,” Paul Pierce [6] said.

5. Still, the Celtics are 8-2 and have wins over Cleveland, Houston, Detroit, Toronto and Atlanta already on their resume. The good news is that, for the most part, their issues are correctable and should resolve themselves with a little more rest and a lot more practice time.

Miserable, to steal a line from Gordon Gekko, is good.