ORLANDO -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens urged his team before the season to embrace the idea that its depth could be its greatest weapon. But two months after Boston players convened for the start of training camp, the Celtics' lack of roster separation has led to mix-and-match rotations and inconsistent play that has left some players wondering if Stevens must designate a firmer rotation.
After the Celtics' roller coaster endured another dive during Sunday's 110-91 loss to the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center, swingman Jae Crowder expressed frustration at the up-and-down nature of the 2015-16 season.
"We haven’t built our identity yet as a unit," Crowder said. "Coaching staff hasn’t figured it out yet. We don’t have set rotations. A lot of guys don’t know where we’re going to play or what time we’re going to play. It’s affecting us a little bit. We’ve got to figure it out as a unit, figure it out as a coaching staff. We gotta build our identity in who we want to be. We’re a month into the season and we haven’t figured it out."
The Celtics have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde bunch over the first month of the season but have rarely been anything in between. Boston's nine wins have been by an average of 17.7 points, while its eight losses have been by an average of 11 points. Boston followed a 33-point shellacking over Washington on Friday night by getting outhustled in a 19-point loss to Orlando.
"That’s the most frustrating part about this loss: played good at home Friday night and, come in here, trying to gain momentum into a tough road trip, and we didn’t do that," Crowder said.
A far more athletic Magic squad outworked Boston on Sunday. Orlando lived in the paint (52 points on 26-of-39 shooting) and generated 26 second-chance points. For the first 40 minutes of the game, Orlando barely sniffed the charity stripe but shot 48.4 percent from the floor and pushed its lead as high as 21 as Boston's typically stout defense endured noticeable lapses.
"To be honest, [consistency is] a mindset," said Avery Bradley, the longest-tenured player in Boston's locker room. "You can't teach that. You just have to go out there and have that mindset and do that because you’re not always going to make shots, and you’re not always going to get stops. But if you go out there and you give 100 percent and play as hard as you can, good things are going to happen.
"We have to have that mindset as a young team because we can’t let our offense dictate our defense, and that's what we do a lot of the time. That's usually when we lose games."
So far, the Celtics seem to become frustrated when they fall behind early. Missed shots and sloppy play, such as the six first-quarter turnovers that led to 11 Orlando points Sunday, leave the team digging out of early holes, and Boston simply hasn't been good while playing from behind.
Injuries haven't helped as the Celtics are playing without starting guard Marcus Smart, but neither has the fact that Stevens must often search for sparks because players haven't delivered consistent performances.
Could Boston's depth be more of a curse than a blessing?
"It’s a strength and it could be a weakness, just because Coach knows we have a lot of guys and he wants to give everybody an opportunity," Isaiah Thomas said. "Which you should, but at the same time, when it’s winning time, put your best five out there. Not putting anything toward Coach. He’s doing a great job. Just as players, we’ve got to separate ourselves. You’ve got to play well. And, until then, the minutes are probably going to be like they are because he’s trying to find the best player to play at that particular time.
"[The rotation] could be a problem. You could say that," Thomas said. "But at the end of the day, as a team, we have to figure it out. We have to somehow learn to play the same way each and every night, no matter if shots are falling or not.
"I think that’s our biggest problem right now: We’ll play like we did against Washington and then come and play like we did against [Orlando]. You’ve got to give credit to the Orlando Magic. They’re a good team and they played a good game. But it’s just, we were a step slow to everything -- loose balls, offensive rebounds -- and that’s not us. If we want to be a good team, we have to be on top of that each and every night. But rotations, you can say that because inconsistent minutes give you inconsistent playing. But you’ve got to make it tough on the coaches to not take you out of the game."
When Boston struggles, Stevens sometimes has tightened his rotations and eliminated some of the lineup guesswork. Would Boston players prefer if the coaching staff simply decided who would play if players can't separate themselves?
"Of course you want that. We all want that," Crowder said. "At the same time, [the coaching staff is] trying to figure out as well and so we’ve got to be patient with those guys. We’ll try to figure it out soon because these games are coming fast, we all know, and we don’t want to get too far behind. We’re trying to figure it out as a unit, not just [the coaches]. As players, when we’re in there, we have to take care of our business whenever you get thrown into the fire, whoever it may be.
"We'll stay at it."