How Celtics diagnose their recent defensive struggles

Nick Friar
January 19, 2020 - 6:45 am

The first quarter has been a big issue for the Celtics the majority of the season — which was the case again on Saturday. Jayson Tatum feels that’s an energy issue. Opponents “swing first.”

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But the Celtics have been able to work through their first quarter issues for much of the season. Between their defense and adjustments made on the offensive end after the first quarter, Boston has found ways to win plenty of games, especially against lesser opponents like the Suns. Just not as often lately.

The C’s didn’t have Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker on Saturday, but with Marcus Smart shooting the lights out (37 points, 11-for-22 from 3-point territory) and both Tatum and Gordon Hayward on the floor, the Celtics should’ve been able to comfortably handle what was a 17-24 team (now 18-24).

But they couldn’t, and Boston’s defense deserves the majority of the blame for the 123-119 loss. (For a complete recap of the Celtics' loss, click here.)

As good as Devin Booker is (39 points on 12-for-20 shooting, 14-for-15 on free throw attempts), the Suns shouldn’t have that type of production against what’s supposed to be a defensively sound team — which is only surrendering 105.6 points per game on average (tied for fourth-best in the NBA).

“Sometimes you go through runs like this. And I’ll try to weigh it.” Stevens said about the defensive slippage of late. “I went back and watched the Detroit game and the transition mistakes were costly — but then we defended the three pretty well and they made a lot of tough shots. You know, sometimes you have to go back and look at it that way. … Tonight, I’ll go back and watch. But, we did a good job taking the ball out of Booker’s hands late, then those (other) guys stepped up and made (shots). But our defensive system, we just need to be a little tighter and better with it.”

When Smart was asked about the issues on the defensive end, he picked up where Stevens left off.

“(We are) just not really running our system on the defensive end,” he said. “You know, we gave up a lot of easy, easy, easy layups at the rim when guys are supposed to be pulled in, and it’s like we don’t know what we are doing out there and that’s a problem. We’re not really holding guys accountable on the defensive end.”

Tatum was asked the same question and, again, Boston’s defensive system was brought up.

“We (are) playing hard, sometimes we just, sometimes (we) take shortcuts or don’t play within our system, which leads to uncontested shots and miscommunication,” he said. “We just got to talk more, play within our system. Because most of the time I feel like we’re playing hard on defense, just not in the right system.”

So, the Celtics have identified the problem. They’re all on the same page off the court about not being on the same page on the court, defensively — even though they have all the switchable wings Stevens could ask for to run his system effectively.

“We have the speed, we have the length, we have the quickness and things like that, the athleticism, that we shouldn’t fall asleep like we (have) been doing these last seven, eight games. And it’s a problem that we have to nip in the bud,” Smart said. “It’s going to take a full team effort. And, like I told the guys, we get it together, we take one game, that one game is all we need. When it comes down to March and April, these games that we lost, nobody (will) be talking about them.”

Even if no one is talking about these losses when the postseason nears, that doesn’t change the significance of each game. The Celtics are now fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. With the Sixers being a major disappointment so far, Boston has a much better chance at meeting the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. But it’s going to be much more difficult for the Celtics if they’re not entering the 2020 Playoffs as the No. 2 seed.

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Related: Marcus Smart set the last Celtics record you'd expect him to