BOSTON — A 40-19 record heading into the NBA All-Star break, a second-place mark in the Eastern Conference and the NBA’s top-rated defense are all typically causes for celebration. When you factor in the opening night loss of Gordon Hayward, you would imagine that Celtics fans would be on Cloud Nine at the moment.
That is not the case, however, as the Celtics have spent the last month playing uninspired basketball. This season, more than most others, has been hard to get a feel for. Are the Celtics NBA Finals contenders, first-round fodder or somewhere in between?
Nothing has complicated the Celtics’ recent funk more than the absence of Marcus Smart, who has missed the last 11 games.
“Defensively his versatility is such a huge asset – whether it’s on a guard or the Kristaps Porzingis’ of the world – he’s just capable of digging in and getting stops at multiple positions,” Chris Mannix, Senior NBA Writer for Yahoo Sports told CLNS Media’s new host of Celtics Beat, Adam Kaufman, on Sunday’s show.
“That’s what this team has needed. There’s been too many guys charging into the paint and carving them up. I don’t care how good of a defensive team you are, I don’t care how versatile you are, if you can’t stop dribble penetration you can’t beat anybody.”
The eye test has certainly reaffirmed Mannix’s remarks. The Celtics are letting opponents waltz into the paint without the slightest resistance.
Since a 116-113 overtime defeat against the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 16, the Celtics have allowed opponents to connect on 18-of-30 field goal attempts in the restricted area per game. In conjunction, their defensive rating has dropped from 99.7 to 100.9 in just 15 games, according to NBA.com.
Prior to that mid-January game against New Orleans, the Celtics had allowed opponents to connect on 15.9-of-26.7 field goal attempts per game in the restricted area.
The Celtics have showed about as much defensive indifference as an over-40 YMCA men’s league game.
Although Boston’s struggles began before Smart went down with a self-induced hand injury, it’s safe to assume that the Celtics defense is nowhere this bad – with Smart on or off the court.
Smart brings a defensive intensity unlike anyone else on this team and a unique skillset that only a handful of players in this league own. Plus, given that the Celtics have had to rely on a pair of inexperienced wings (one who has likely hit the proverbial rookie wall), the trickledown effect on this Celtics roster is pretty steep.
Take Smart out of the equation and Brad Stevens has to rely on Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye in his place. Take Smart out of Boston’s rotation and that means the team has to rely on Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis to anchor the second-unit (Marcus Morris is a quasi-starter, while Greg Monroe needs to improve his conditioning and get up to speed with the team).
“They’ve been getting bullied a lot over the last couple of weeks, whether it’s Toronto, Indiana, Cleveland. Physical teams have come in and knocked them around,” said Mannix. “You’d think they’d be better equipped nowadays to handle that with Aron Baynes, now Greg Monroe, and Daniel Theis in the mix, but they got to stop getting pushed around out there. Teams are just walking up to them early, punching them in the mouth and Boston can’t recover.”
In light of Smart’s latest outburst, Stevens and the Celtics brass has certainly expressed disappointment with the hot-tempered guard and his questionable choices. With that said, Smart still has an excellent chance to salvage this season and head into contract negotiations on a positive note.
“The upside of it all is that Marcus [Smart] has an opportunity over the final two months and the playoffs to erase a lot of the things that happened during this year,” added Mannix. “If he plays well down the stretch and if Boston advances to the conference finals in part to what he’s been doing, he’ll be able to enhance that value significantly.”
The Celtics’ defensive struggles have also unfortunately carried over to the offensive end.
The team has been league average at best this season as an offense, and according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the team ranks 28th in points per possession since Jan. 1, and 29th in the league during this stretch in shot attempts within the restricted area.
For this year’s team to be successful, they’ll have to grind out games on the defensive end and win with fourth quarter scoring. Plans for one of the league’s best offensive units went out the door the moment Hayward went down.
Stevens and the Celtics have typically ended seasons well. Discounting Stevens’ first season with the team, the Celtics own a .627 win percentage following the all-star break.
The team expects Smart (along with Shane Larkin) to return to action shortly. The team will use these final 23 games (11 against sub-.500 teams) to return to form and sort out their rotations.
“I don’t think you mix up the rotation too much,” Mannix commented on Stevens’ recent admission that changes could be coming. “I think you just kind of hope that Smart changes your defensive identity and they just kind of get it over the all-star break.”