After fighting through the season's early-November doldrums, facing a series of vanilla matchups with the Washingtons and Torontos and Detroits of the NBA world, the Celtics finally found themselves a true test against an elite team tonight. For the first time since opening night down in South Beach, the C's got the chance to test their mettle against a true Finals contender.
The pre-Thanksgiving tilt with the San Antonio Spurs at the TD Garden was a chance for the Celtics to gauge their progress, to find out whether they truly belonged on the same floor with the West titans at this point in the season.
And while they may have dropped 100 points on San Antonio, aided by lights-out shooting from all five starters, they still never had a chance. Easy to see why -- it was all about three things.
Defense, defense and defense.
The Celtics lost decisively, 112-100 despite a fierce fourth-quarter surge, because they couldn't stop Tony Parker's dribble penetration and they couldn't keep San Antonio's bigs from overpowering them in the low post. The defense is still the Celtics' fatal flaw, and that's hard to cope with for a team that's always been prideful on that end of the floor.
"It's difficult," C's coach Doc Rivers said. "Very difficult. I don't know if there's a word for more than that, but if there is, then it's that."
The Celtics' defensive struggles were evident all over the stat sheet. Where to start?
Problem No. 1: They let Tony Parker get to his spots every time, and Parker was a model of efficiency, shooting 12-of-17.
Problem No. 2: Threes. The Spurs made eight of them, in 16 attempts. That was no fluke -- it was the direct result of the C's surrendering open looks.
Problem No. 3: The paint was a disaster area. Tim Duncan finished with 20 points for the Spurs; Tiago Splitter outdid him with 23 off the bench. San Antonio beat Boston in paint scoring, 58-34, and second-chance points as well, 17-2.
I could go on, but you get the point. The Celtics are getting mauled, and they need to do something about it. And it's more than just an effort thing.
"I think we've got to do our coverages better, bottom line," Rivers said. "Harder and all that, that sounds great. That's what everyone says when you lose -- 'you've got to play harder.' Well, we've got to play smarter. We've got to know our coverages better. When that happens, everybody is on the same page, and it allows our rotations to be freer and our bigs to get back into the paint."
Defense has been a problem all season. Normally one of the league's best teams on that end, the Celtics have slipped dramatically this year. They entered the night 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 103.8 points per 100 possessions, and tonight's 112-point stinkbomb will only make matters worse. They had the league's best D last year, and the year before that as well. Now they're in the bottom third.
"I'm concerned with the way we're giving up points," Rivers said of his team's season. "There's a lot of good things that I see, but defense is not one of them. It's shocking in the games we win, how good our defense is, and in the games we lose, how bad it is. Usually the discrepancy is not that big -- you score a couple less points, the other team scores a couple more. But I think there's a 15-point difference between our wins and losses. That's a huge difference, and I've got to figure out why that's happening."
The Celtics have opened the floodgates for opposing offenses a few times this season. They let the Heat hang 120 on them back in the season opener, and that was just the beginning. The Sixers scored 106 against them a couple weeks ago. The Nets had 112 last week; the Pistons had 103 on Sunday. Yes, the Pistons!
This isn't the Celtics' M.O. They don't know how to win this way.
"We're a grind-it-out type of team," Paul Pierce said. "We can play in the hundreds, but we're a team that likes to grind out wins. We don't mind playing a game in the 80s, 90s, if we're getting defensive stop after defensive stop. We have to go back to that and got to understand who we are. Because these last two games, that's not who we are."
Kevin Garnett has long been hailed as the defensive captain of this team, and Rajon Rondo is an All-Defense selection in this league as well. Even Pierce, never known as a defender earlier in his career, has improved greatly since KG arrived in 2007. But it's not just about the team's stars.
"It's got to come from everybody," Pierce said. "We've all got to look in the mirror. It's not just one particular person. It's the starters starting out, and it's the guys coming off the bench. It's a team game."
That, it is, and the Celtics as a team have looked remarkably mediocre. If they're going to turn it around, they know exactly where to start.