The Celtics have been lazy too many times this season and the lack of focus on small things has made a big difference.
Good or bad, the Boston Celtics over the past few years couldn't be characterized as a lazy team. Perhaps they lacked urgency, but they weren't a team that made many mental mistakes. That's not the case this season.
You can call it "lazy, careless, lacking focus" or any other word you want. I use the word "lazy" because I think it best sums up the carefree, going-through-the-motions mentality. The point is, the effort Boston puts on the floor night-in and night-out isn't consistent.
This is, of course, a general statement, but one that applies to much of the team. It extends to every aspect of the game and everywhere on the floor, from passing to decision-making to defense. Even if it seems like the Celtics are only lazy against bad teams, the better performances against teams they actually do get up for mask some of the cringe-worthy plays.
The heartbreaking loss to the New York Knicks on Thursday night is a perfect example. Sure, the Celtics nearly won and it would have been a significant victory to break a bad streak, but don't let the final score fool you.
"If I saw that effort every night, I'd be very happy," said Doc Rivers in his press conference after the game.
In fairness to Doc, any effort after the Celtics' disappointing play this week must be encouraging. Nevertheless, Boston had moments in the loss that we've become too familiar with this season.
Of course, you already knew I was going to point to the two turnovers by Paul Pierce at the end of the game and you probably already have a counter. You might say, "give J.R. Smith credit, he was disruptive," or "those were just an aberration and Pierce more often than not doesn't make those mistakes." To the first point, Smith has never had the reputation of being a disruptive defensive presence but yes, he did play those two situations well. Is there a possibility that the only reason he was so aggressive was because he knows Pierce isn't careful with the ball?
Turnovers aren't created equally. Losing the ball on a drive when you're trying to score and might have got fouled (which has also been the case with Pierce too often) is different than what happened on the Celtics' last two possessions. Pierce lost his focus for a split second. Not once, but twice. Not being locked-in mentally has been a rarity for the Celtics in big moments during big games in the Kevin Garnett era.
If these were isolated incidents, there wouldn't be much more to say. But they weren't and there is.
Pierce has been in a shooting funk lately but that hasn't stopped him from looking to score. That's great for Pierce and the team. You want your captain and best scorer to remain aggressive and work through his struggles. What you don't want, however, is for him to still be chucking bad 3-pointers. Being open is one thing, but when Pierce is shooting contested long jumpers early in the shot clock after an offensive rebound, you have to wonder whether he's a little too comfortable from beyond the arc.
Enough with picking on Pierce though, there are other players that deserve some blame and Rondo is one of them.
Despite producing a triple-double against New York and carrying the team offensively, Rondo still had too many lapses on defense. Especially in the Knicks' final possessions, he got caught watching Carmelo Anthony's isolation, leading to open 3-pointers by Jason Kidd and Smith. Rondo was bailed out by Kidd missing on the first trip, but the second time around, Smith made Boston pay. Rondo was in no-man's land. He didn't jump out enough to double-team Anthony and didn't stay close to his assignment either. It was lazy defense and a lack of focus, something Rondo has displayed more this season than in past years on that end of the floor.
I'm not going to expound on Rondo's decision to toss an alley-oop on a fast break when he had an open layup because that was just a bonehead play. Not lazy, just dumb. Where I am going next is the carelessness in the backcourt after rebounds or baskets scored. I can't remember the Celtics ever turning the ball over more before even crossing the half-court line. Remember Shelden Williams throwing the ball to the Los Angeles Lakers on an inbound in the 2010 Finals? Well, that type of stuff is happening what seems like at least once a game now.
The blame lies with both Rondo and the big man who is trying to outlet the ball. On Rondo's part, he seems to drift further and further away from the ball, while still expecting and demanding the pass. The big men are so used to getting the ball to Rondo right away and heading up the court in transition that they've thrown blind passes at times. Opposing teams have become wise to the act and are now either just hanging around in the backcourt waiting for an errant pass in traffic, or predetermining that they're going to jump the pass.
Teams make bad plays during the course of a game. It's impossible to play 48 perfect minutes, which is why coaches are afforded six timeouts. When the Celtics have won this season, these lazy plays have been swept under the rug. The problem is that they've continued to occur and against good teams in the playoffs, lapses of focus can make all the difference, especially because this Boston team doesn't have much room for error.
Of all the problems facing the Celtics this season, their lack of mental fortitude and attention to the little things is the most surprising and could also end up being the most detrimental.