The scariest news out of the nation’s capital this week will probably not be what happened at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. Yet in the span of 48 minutes the Celtics looked like they were setting back the art of defense by decades. If that’s the only thing moving backwards in that city this month, I’ll be relieved, but momentarily it was tremendously terrifying.
Is it time to panic?
Between Boston allowing 123 points and the notoriously petty black Wizards dress code that Marcin Gortat couldn’t even seem to fully get behind, it feels like it. Bradley Beal was a one-man run down the stretch of the fourth quarter, which was capped off with Jonas Jerebko not paying attention as Isaiah Thomas hummed a pass to him that sailed into the bench.
Washington caught up to the Celtics. The Hawks are on the Cs doorstep (0.5 GB) on a monstrous tear over the last ten-plus games. As Mike Gorman mentioned during the broadcast, the Cs’ defensive rating has dipped from 18th to 24th in the absence of Avery Bradley.
With the snub of Isaiah Thomas as an All-Star starter in the backdrop, this has the feel of a morbid week—one that could make or break the Celts’ season depending on how they respond. Nothing is more troubling than the defense. The team has allowed 100 points in 17 of their last 18 games, culminating in 110+ points allowed in each their last three losses (note: the Portland game went to overtime).
I’m not screaming but my fists are clenched.
The Celtics had a similar response. Marcus Smart expressed frustration for trying to check himself into the game, while Isaiah Thomas condemned his squad that is slowly losing a grip on the third seed that they’ve held for weeks.
To my teammates and coaches... pic.twitter.com/6HtN3FWb8Y— marcus smart (@smart_MS3) January 25, 2017
Isaiah Thomas: "Our defense isn't where we wanted to be but that's been the story of our whole season."— Jay King (@ByJayKing) January 25, 2017
This week, if anything, has been a wake-up call. It’s time to panic, or at least ramp up awareness, because the issue rearing its ugly head in the form of losses isn’t a new one. This team is not good defensively.
After a season where they were in the top five in points allowed, they’ve regressed at levels that are hard to understand. The insertion of Al Horford at a spot that the defensively inept Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk once roamed would seemingly send them upward if in any direction. Instead they’ve plummeted.
Evan Turner’s loss has played more of a role than some originally thought. His versatility and physical stature to defend multiple positions was crucial for a defense that has to switch often to help Isaiah Thomas. He could not have been a make-or-break player on the unit though.
The team is not good at rebounding. The rebounding is so bad that it was my original speculation for what has held them back in their own end. While they lost another battle in that area tonight (42-32), effort on the boards wasn’t the culprit. Boston led in rebounding for periods throughout the night and was still routinely torched, especially in transition and at the rim.
What is affecting the defense is intangible. It’s extremely hard to measure that side of the ball in general. Bradley’s metrics aren’t up to his standards this season, yet it’s clear they’ve missed him sorely since he strained his achilles. The Celtics defense requires only the all-telling eye test to see that there’s one overarching issue.
The sense of urgency is gone.
A year ago the Cs took a ton of pride in focusing on defense, allowing turnovers to lead to offense and playing with one of the highest paces in the league. Picks that were once torn through are now run through, they’re average in opponent turnover percentage and rank 18th in pace.
There have certainly been benefits to adjusting their approach. This is currently looking like the most prolific offensive attacks the team has ever had. They break their three-point-shooting record as a team seemingly by the game. Their half-court offense, once their greatest issue, has become one of the best in basketball. What they’ve traded in, though, has cost them both games and in some ways an identity.
Thomas is an easy target, but the blame falls on the Celtics as a whole for losing their defensive poise. IT said after the loss that teams once didn’t enjoy playing the Celtics. They were an annoyance off energy alone. Whether or not you believe that the Cs can compete for the Eastern conference crown, they have to get back to being that team.
Is it really time to panic? Not yet, the team’s window of opportunity still stretches to the end of next season, and there’s plenty of time for adjustment for a group that’s overall been fantastic. There also is not the immediate need for a massive upgrade with a possible number-one pick approaching this upcoming draft.
Is it past the time this team needs to wake up? Yup. It has to happen now. If it takes a medium-sized trade of some sort to shake things up, I’m all ears. Luckily February is almost here.