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With win streak over Celtics can key in on areas of improvement

For 16 straight games the Celtics’ record stood perfect, but the play was not. You don’t even have to ask Brad Stevens. After Thanksgiving, they have a loss to refocus around.

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NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks game appeared to be the moment where Brad Stevens’ reservations about his team would culminate in a loss. Inconsistent defense on the perimeter, streaky stretches of passing and low efficiency shooting probably should have stalled the win streak at 15. Then Kyrie Irving happened, and it kept rolling.

"We've got to play better,” Brad Stevens said in Dallas. “We've been saying that kind of like a broken record. I do think we can take a step back and appreciate that comeback ... but we had a number of effort plays there late that kind of kept us around."

It wasn’t the first time through the 16-0 stretch Stevens stammered after a win. Coach-talk that would be characteristic of a team’s leader trying to maintain a not-too-high, not-too-low approach through seemingly non-stop success. But the consistency of Stevens’ critiques seemed to be evident of real, deeper reservations.

They culminated in the end of the win streak in the C’s six point loss to the Heat Wednesday. Going into Thanksgiving dinner, Stevens and Celtics fans everywhere will not have to answer questions about going for the longest win streak in NBA history. And for Boston’s coach, that seems to be a relief.

The Celtics are the best team record-wise in the NBA right now at 16-3, stunning given their roster overhaul, youth and Gordon Hayward injury. The number one defensive rating in basketball, gaudy clutch performances by Irving and a win streak that’ll be tough to match by anybody (even Golden State) this year seem to indicate a team in full stride.

Ask Stevens and he would not agree. Wednesday, it became easier to see why. Even while cutting another double-digit deficit down to one point late, inconsistency plagued Boston on both ends. Even while Irving showcased more circus finishes down the stretch, Dion Waiters willed in a three-pointer off the top of the backboard.

"Like I said, 16 straight is a little bit of a mirage," Stevens said in Miami. Irving added that the Heat were the locked in of the two teams.

Little things went against the Celts to the degree at which they finally shifted the game against them. Outside of Irving and Jaylen Brown, Boston shot 18-of-52 (34.6%). Al Horford again failed to break back into his two-man game with Irving that looked so good earlier in the streak. Defensively, they struggled to prevent dribble penetration that sparked Miami’s offense.

A Heat team that only scored a hair over 100 points per game ripped off 104, only the sixth time the Celtics’ defense allowed 100+ this year, but the second time in the last two games. Even the defense, a constant through streaky offensive performances over the 16 straight wins, cracked in a loss.

The Celtics can still cling to the best defensive rating in basketball (two whole points above the Trailblazers), the top defensive rebounding percentage and a net rating of 7.4 only surpassed by the Warriors and Rockets. But their success sits on a shaky foundation.

Only four teams are shooting less efficiently than Boston. Defensively, they’re middle of the league in protecting the paint. While top-ten in three-point attempts is a good place to be, they still fall in the bottom ten in 3-pt percentage.

Most shockingly, the crux of a good Stevens offense, assists per game, isn’t there either. Their 21.5 per game is 19th in the league, in the same range as the 3-13 Bulls (21.3).

Unsurprisingly Stevens said, “we’re not as good as the 16 game win streak,” after the Miami loss. Too many lulls. A lack of attention for details. When the Heat were running around screens, he said, his team was on their heels.

But the loss didn’t strike a tone from Stevens any different from the recent string of wins.

A double-digit win over Hawks: “We haven’t played well enough to consider this win streak to be valid in my opinion.”

Holding the defending champion Warriors, scoring as many as 140 points in prior games, to 88: “We have a lot of room to improve.”

More than anything, the early deficits aren’t sitting well with him.

Digging beyond the 16-3 record, there’s plenty of vindication for Stevens’ nit-picky comments following victories. It was the longest win streak of his NBA career, and he made a concerted effort not to mention it at all as it stretched on then screeched to a halt.

It’s never good to lose, Alex Kungu said so affirmatively on the latest Banners Broadcast, but the Miami game gives Boston a point to refocus. An emphasis on weak spots that piled up into a loss for the first time since the middle of October.

Stevens sounded like a stingy, seasoned, unimpressed veteran coach decades into his career sounding off on his team’s shortcomings weeks into a record win streak. Now, loss in hand, there’s concrete evidence of holes working against Boston in a loss and plenty to improve upon to become a well-rounded team.