PHOENIX — After scoring 31 points for the second time in four games — this time during a loss to the Nuggets — Kyrie Irving was visibly frustrated.
And the Celtics guard’s irritation wasn’t just rooted in Jamal Murray’s decision to take a gratuitous 3-pointer on top of his 48-point performance in the final seconds.
Irving is attempting to be more of everything to his team this season — if that’s even possible — while the Celtics, as a group, are attempting to configure their offense while working Gordon Hayward back into the fold.
They also are 0-2 on an important, and unusually early, five-city road trip that will touch three time zones.
“How hard it is to win on the road,” Irving said of what he has learned from these past two defeats to Indiana and Denver, amounting to the Celtics’ first losing streak of the season.
“Possessions down the stretch. Obviously when it’s a seven-point game or a five-point game or even a nine-point game, for us as a team, in a possession-to-possession game like that, we have so many plays we can go to and we don’t need to dominate that with the 3-point shot. Easy two here, or getting the clock to stop and then having them run another possession, it could always equate to us getting back in the game. So I think down the stretch we shot a few too many (3-pointers) rather than taking the easy ones.”
The 3-ball has been the Celtics’ primary weapon thus far, to the point that Brad Stevens has criticized his team’s two-point effectiveness.
That wasn’t necessarily the case against the Nuggets, though. The Celtics’ main issue Monday night was poor 3-point shooting (29 percent, 9-for-31), with their performance at the rim much improved from their showing in Indiana on Saturday.
But as the team attempting the third-most treys in the league (36.7 per game) behind only bomb-happy Houston and Milwaukee, the Celtics aren’t getting to the line. They are 29th, ahead of only Orlando, in attempted free throws at 19 per game.
Is their lack of paint presence a result of an over-reliance on the 3?
“I don’t think so. It’s the NBA. Take them when you’re open,” Jaylen Brown said. “I think we could still be shooting the ball better as a team, even though we’ve shot them pretty well. All we can do is improve.”
But when Nuggets coach Mike Malone broke down the Celtics’ most recent performances, he charted an uptick in offensive stats. True to his prediction, and belying their low 3-point percentage, the Celtics played a solid overall offensive game Monday.
They also lost despite shooting 50.6 percent. On this night, their main issue was defense, and finding someone who could stop Murray.
“They’re improving rapidly. The last five games they’re fifth in 3-point percentage,” Malone said. “Kyrie is finding his rhythm. I wouldn’t worry about the Boston Celtics offense. They’ve been taking a lot of 3’s, and they don’t score much in the paint. But once those 3’s start dropping, it’s going to open up everything else.”
Malone lauded the Celts as a dangerous team primed for a deep playoff run, but they still need time to find themselves, sometimes through better execution, according to Stevens.
“There’s things we can do that will be better,” the coach said. “Like better cutting, just a little bit more alert to being quicker with our drives, quick screens, making a point of getting the ball quickly to the ground and to the rim, and then making a read from there. We get there, then it’s about spraying it and making the right pass. We’re just not getting there quickly.”