In terms of defensive rankings, the Boston Celtics fit nicely in the top 10 in the NBA in a myriad of categories.
The C’s are positioned eighth in the league in defensive rating while holding opponents to 43.5 percent shooting from the field, which is tied for fifth-best in the league, and letting up 104.1 points per game, a top three mark.
But for the Celtics, their play on the defensive end didn’t measure up to those metrics last week when they suffered back-to-back losses for just the second time this season while allowing some of their highest point totals of this campaign.
“We all want to get back to winning games after the last two games. We didn’t play well. We didn’t play defense well,” said Celtics center Daniel Theis. “Today (at practice) was a big focus on just getting back to the great defensive team we are, pressure the ball and make it hard for teams to score on us.”
The Celtics had one of their worst defensive performances in a 122-117 loss to the Indiana Pacers, a team that has some nice offensive pieces, but surely isn’t a juggernaut on that end of the floor, especially with Victor Oladipo out with an injury,
However, the C’s couldn't defend without fouling against the Pacers, while the brother tandem of Aaron and Justin Holiday came off the bench to combine for 35 points on 65.2 percent shooting.
In one instance with the Celtics holding a late two-point lead, Malcolm Brogdon got a clear lane to the basket in a half court set, which caused Jayson Tatum to have to collapse. All Brogdon then had to do was kick it over to Aaron Holiday for a 3-pointer as the Pacers finished with 38 fourth-quarter points.
The defensive challenge went up several notches the next night against the Philadelphia 76ers. After defeating Boston in the season-opener, Philadelphia proved again to be too much for the C’s and handed them their first home loss of the season, 115-109.
Besides for trying to contain Joel Embiid, which the C’s like many teams didn’t have much luck with as Embiid scored 38 points, the C’s struggled to defend the 3-point line. With Embiid getting much of the attention and drawing the Celtics into the paint, it allowed the 76ers to shoot 50 percent (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.
Journeyman Mike Scott got several uncontested looks from distance, and on a couple occasions Jaylen Brown didn’t close out nearly hard enough to make it easier for Scott, as the power forward knocked down 5-of-7 3-pointers and netted 17 points.
“We just went away from pressuring the ball, especially as a big, too,” Theis said. “We played good teams, especially on the back-to-back. Indiana scored 122. Philly scored 115. That’s too much to win games against good teams like this.”
Not helping matters in those two losses were the C’s were playing without their defensive anchor in Marcus Smart, who continues to be sidelined due to an eye infection. Smart raises the defensively intensity of his teammates whenever he is on the court and usually guards the opposing team’s best scorer, no matter their size.
But the C’s didn’t pick up the defensive slack with Smart out, even though they still have a strong defender in Brown, while Jayson Tatum’s defensive play has show vast improvement this year.
“Obviously, (Smart’s) one of the best defenders in the league, so he definitely plays a huge key in that, but we can’t make any excuses when guys are out,” Tatum said.
While the C’s lack of big men has been a point of emphasis this season, they have held their own in some regards defensively, as Boston allows the third least amount of points in the paint in the league. Theis has been an adept shot blocker, averaging 1.5 blocks per game, which ranks 12th in the NBA. Enes Kanter is still a liability on the defense end, especially when he has to defend a pick-and-roll, but the 6-foot-10 center showed he can bang bodies down low as he did against Embiid.
There’s little doubt that Brad Stevens and the Celtics will make the necessary adjustments to improve their defense and when they do, these two losses against Eastern Conference contenders will prove to be an aberration for the defense.
After five days off since the loss to Philadelphia, Boston faces the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, and the opportunity to get back into the win column will undoubtedly start on the defensive end.
“The last two games weren’t as much fun because we know we can play way better defense,” Theis said. “Even if we lose games, giving up so many points, it’s not how we want to play.”