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Celtics have to stop the rot and sooner rather than later

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Not since their win against Cleveland back in December has this team looked like a cohesive unit.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

After falling at the hands of the Sixers on Thursday night, the Celtics losing streak now stands at three games, but their decline has been evident for a while longer. Not since their win against Cleveland back in December has this team looked like a cohesive unit. Instead, they have labored their way through games struggling to contain anyone who showed a slight glimmer of confidence.

Their defense has regressed exponentially over this same period. Guys are not flying across the court to challenge the open man in the manner they were to start the year. Rotations are being missed more frequently and worst of all, the moment someone drives into the paint with real intent, the defense is on its heals, scrambling to apply any resemblance of resistance.

The Athletic’s Jay King mentioned this exact thing in his recent piece “Malaise hits the Celtics”:

They were going through the motions, not showing the same energy that helped separate them as one of the NBA’s most consistent teams. On the tape, Williams said, the Celtics could see effort plays they would have made earlier in the season, but were declining to make over the last couple of weeks. - Jay King, “Malaise hits the Celtics”

The issue with struggling to contain players who drive into the paint is that it creates gaps on the perimeter for the opponents to exploit. This is what has been happening recently. The Celtics inability to close off driving lanes has resulted in passes being thrown into three point territory and finding wide open shooters.

Ish Smith drives into the paint causing the defense to collapse. Smith then pivots and hits Troy Brown Jr. with the lead pass for the corner three.

DeMar DeRozan is a threat from the mid-range and draws the trap from Daniel Theis and Jaylen Brown. A pass out to Bryn Forbes results in a good look from deep.

Both of these plays resulted in misses, but they illustrate opposing teams’ game plans. The player who gets the ball out on the perimeter doesn’t necessarily have to shoot either; another drive would cause further issues for the Celtics’ defense.

Over the last five games, the Celtics defense has been ranked 16th in the league along with bottom dwellers of the Eastern Conference like the Hawks, Hornets, and Pistons per NBA Stats. For reference purposes, the team is ranked sixth for the entire season. Whatever it was that fulled such a stingy defense has since vanished, leaving the team and fans alike searching for answers.

Defense is just one piece of the puzzle that has lead to this inexplicable slide. A larger and more prominent problem is the team’s star players all failing to reach the heights of previous months. These struggles culminated in underwhelming performances from Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward against the Sixers, something NBC Boston’s Chris Forsberg discussed in his recent article, “Healthy Celtics searching for answers to what ails their team”:

But on this night it was Boston’s trio of wings that struggled. And struggled mightily. Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown could only muster up 10-of-36 shooting (27.8 percent) and 29 total points. Tatum missed nine of his 13 shots and committed four turnovers; Brown missed 10 of his 12 shots and coughed the ball up three times. Hayward was 4-of-11 for 8 points and was minus-19 in 36 minutes of floor time.

The struggles that Boston’s stars are encountering now aren’t exactly new. Tatum has had a season riddled with inconsistency, while Hayward has struggled to find his best form due to a number of injuries along the way.

StatsMuse has Tatum attempting a total of 172 field goal attempts over the last 10 games, making 75 of them, giving him a field goal percentage of 43.6 percent. He is also shooting 35.3 percent from deep over this period on 5.1 attempts per game. A quick glance over these stats would make you believe that Tatum has been a reliable force over this span of games, but you would be mistaken, led astray by the simplicity of the stat line.

Instead, Tatum has coupled games like he had against the Sixers where he went 4-of-13 from the field and 1-of-5 from three, with games like the one he had against Chicago where he went 12-of-15 from the field and 2-of-4 from three. You never know which version of Tatum is going to turn up, which is an issue considering he is one of the teams primary options on offense.

With his offense on such shaky ground, he needs to get to the line as often as possible. His length and speed should make this an easy option on a nightly basis. Over this same span of games, he has only gone to the line 38 times. By getting to the line, Tatum will be able to impact the game in a positive manner while not risking the flow of the offense by forcing his shots, which he has been liable to do.

A nice drive coming off an Enes Kanter screen allows Tatum to drive the lane and draw the shooting foul.

Pushing the pace in transition, Tatum is able to get right to the rim and is unfortunate not to get the foul call.

While Tatum is not the only culprit in the consistency conversation, he is the worst offender. Hayward and to a lesser extent Brown have both found it difficult to maintain their high level of play on a nightly basis. The beauty of having three to four players capable of performing at an All-Star level is that you don’t need them to all perform each night, but you need some of them to. Over the last three games, that hasn’t been the case.

Here’s Brad Stevens:

“I’m concerned with our lack of cutting,” Stevens said. “And our lack of kind of high-motor offense in the past, really since (the) Christmas Day game.”

Maybe, just maybe, the Celtics are underperforming due to a lack of effort. The inconsistencies of its stars can only be an excuse for so long, right? Marcus Smart’s decision to now take ten shots a game can only be a talking point for so long, too. Eventually, the conversation will turn to effort or lack of it.

They look flat on both sides of the court, no cutting or curling, no switches or close outs. Currently, they seem content to play basic man-to-man on defense and run sloppy half-court sets on offense. That isn’t Celtics basketball and it’s definitely not Stevens basketball.

Individual moments of brilliance on both ends of the floor can mask these deficiencies for prolonged periods, but not for entire games. Eventually, the lack of effort will catch up with you and games will slip out of reach just as it did in Philadelphia. There were moments where Tatum or Smart would make a key defensive play and it would energize them both on offense and defense for a brief period, then it would settle back into the bad habits that have now crept into the squad.

This losing streak is only three games deep. It could be much worse. It could have been much worse had they not squeaked past the Hawks and Bulls earlier in the week. There is plenty of time to right the ship, and now they are nearly at full strength health-wise, that time should be now.

“We still have the ability to respond next game. We will the next game, right?” proclaimed Brown. “We’ve got 82 games to play. We lost three. It’s fine. It happens. It’s a part of the year. We keep working, we continue to get better, we watch film and we move on from it. I think we came out and played some really good basketball. Philly, for whatever reason, still won the game. But I think that’s OK. We come out and play better for the next game.”

With the Pelicans, Bulls, and Pistons being the upcoming challenges the Celtics face on this home stand, this losing streak shouldn’t stretch any further. All three games should end in victory for a team of this level, if the effort level is there and the sloppy starts to games are eradicated. The narrative surrounding this team could be vastly different by this time next week.

Currently third in the East and only one game behind the Heat for second place, there is no disaster happening in Boston. Not yet anyway. They just need to rediscover their confidence and start doing the little things that made them so fearsome earlier in the season. As Brad Stevens likes to say, they need to come out and hit singles. Make the right play in every possession. Do these things and they should be able to end the week on a three-game win streak.

“Inevitably, there’s another game,” Stevens said. “And if we play like we did tonight, clean some things up and play with a little bit more pop, I like what we’re becoming. I’m just not as discouraged as I’ve been the last couple days.” - Brad Stevens

There is no magic formula to turn this around, just hard work and effort. Now isn’t the time to panic or turn against anyone. Now is the time to believe that following all the trials and tribulations this group has faced over recent years, they are more than equipped to snap out of this funk.