What a difference a week makes. After a barnstorming trip through California and coming home and taking care of the Kings and Hawks, the Celtics have now lost four straight, including a 115-96 drubbing at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. There were some caveats to the loss; Boston was just getting back Gordon Hayward who had missed virtually the last four games because of a concussion and Aron Baynes from an ankle sprain and were without Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams III.
Despite those qualifiers, they looked lifeless on the back end of a back-to-back and remained in the locker room long after the final buzzer. Brad Stevens, usually quick to the podium post-game, arrived fifteen minutes late to his presser and finally said, “there’s frustration in there. We got beat by a good team. Ultimately, we don’t need to ride the emotional roller coaster. We need to get a lot better.”
That’s been the party line as the regular season comes to a close. Earlier in the week, Danny Ainge spoke about the team needing consistency as it heads to the playoffs with eight games remaining and for Stevens, that means returning to their roots on the defensive end. “We’ve given up 115 or more in a lot of games here recently and our defense has to improve dramatically if we’re going to make a push to ultimately get what we want out of the next couple of months,” Stevens said.
140, 120, 120, 114, 118, 124, 115. Those are the ballooning points allowed totals from the Celtics’ last seven games. They’ve been hemorrhaging on that end of the floor since the All-Star break with a 111.5 DefRtg, good for 19th in the league; only the Pistons have a worst defense for a playoff bound team.
“We were a better defensive team in the first two months of the season than we’ve played anytime in the last month,” Stevens continued. “So, to me, it’s not about what we’re doing. It’s about how well we’re doing every single night and that’s where we have to get back to.”
Marcus Smart, the unofficial defensive captain, was a little more forthcoming when asked what the team talked about behind closed doors:
Marcus Smart on what the the team discussed in meeting:— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) March 25, 2019
“We were just watching film of what we could have done better … Guys were all chiming in on this and that rotation, or what we could do differently. We’re moving in the right direction."
Smart after leaning back and thinking for a good 10 sec: "Teams are really making us pay because we’re not always ready, in the right place or the right stance. Sometimes we are in the right places, in the right stance & make tough shots & we kind of allow that to get to us."— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) March 25, 2019
The old adage that defense wins championships isn’t lost on this team. “I don’t want to be a team and I’ve never been a part of a team that was solely reliant on whether you make shots or not,” Steven reiterated. On a night when the Celtics hit just 7-of-35 from behind the arc, Boston never responded on D.
Big picture, it’s another speed bump for a team that clearly measures their success on what happens in April, May, and June. When asked about how this season compares to his title runs in Cleveland where the Celtics will play a get away game on Tuesday, Kyrie Irving responded, “we had the luxury of relying on experience and here, we’re building something great every single day and that’s the experience that we get. We had guys that had been on that stage, had lost on that stage, had won on that stage.”
“Here, we’re trying to build great championship habits and that takes time and that takes commitment,” Irving continued. “But like I said, that starts with me. I’ll do my best to keep communicating as best I can and get the most out of these guys because they deserve it from me.”
While they’ve put off worrying until late-April, they could get a taste of post season pressure before the playoffs even begin. With a handful of games to go, the Celtics find themselves two games behind Indiana for the #4 seed with two games against the Pacers left. Irving talked about how in other years, he’d be prepping his body for a 40+ minute workload in the playoffs and cleaning up coverages with his teammates. This year, the team is still a work in progress.
“For us, we’re still developing as a team. It’s been a whole season doing so. There’s light at the end of all this,” Irving said. “That’s probably where my patience will always lie, is knowing there’s something beyond this, this challenge is happening for a reason and I gotta believe in that.”