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CelticsBlog Slack mailbag: taking stock of the west coast trip

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After playing the best of the Western Conference, the Celtics come home 2-3.

Boston Celtics v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Once in awhile, the writing staff at CelticsBlog notices a couple of trends with the team, whether that’s on the floor or their perception on social media or in mainstream coverage. Here are a few things that caught our eye during the five-game road trip out west:

Over the last few weeks, the Celtics have fared we’ll against the top-4 teams in the Western Conference. Who scares you the most in a potential Finals matchup?

Adam Taylor: This might be a cliche, but it has to be the Lakers. Their blend of scoring and size make them arguably the deepest team in the league. Schroeder was an underrated pickup by them, while THT is showing why teams were wrong to pass on him last year.

They’ve made drop defense ultra fashionable, and possess the star power, and veteran leadership to close out tight games. I do get vibes of the old Celtics 2008 team vs. LeBron’s Miami team though, where the old guard is slowly passing the torch to a rising powerhouse.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that torch being passed this year, as the Celtics bench is too erratic, and stars such as Kemba Walker are misfiring. Add those struggles to their lackluster 4th quarter defense, and I wouldn’t feel confident facing the Lakers in a potential Finals matchup.

Oh, I didn’t even mention the LeBron/AD pick-and-roll.

Are Boston’s defensive issues just dumb mental errors that they can clean up or can they only be solved by Smart, Langford, and/or a possible trade?

Bobby Manning: Let’s start with the inside and work out. The Celtics started the night with the third-worst opponent shooting percentage at the rim (~64%). A strong foundation is important defensively, even in a league where stopping the three has gained equal priority and the C’s have excelled (ranked 8th in three-point% defense before tonight).

There aren’t long wings everywhere like last year to assist Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson, who don’t have excellent rim-protecting verticality. In more cases, the two-big lineups get stretched, and help doesn’t arrive to the middle on time.

Recently, the personnel hasn’t been there for three-guard lineups without Marcus Smart, at least any that would be a plus defensively. Injuries and personnel are a starting point for blame.

Brad Stevens has mentioned Boston’s lack of rim protection, including wings in that discussion, while balancing getting minutes for Robert Williams, who could feasibly help there. Boston can’t play three bigs, though they’ve tried, without leaning into zone, which the Celtics haven’t played enough of to be great at.

Through it all, they’re still above the league average defensively. It just doesn’t look good, or in line with the C’s top-10 standard. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown said they’re disconnected. From afar, they look disjointed, awkward and uncomfortable as a defensive unit.

I keep asking the question: Is this who they want to be? Bigger, slower and less versatile in their own end. Who knew this team would miss what Gordon Hayward brought defensively more than anything else.

Boston Celtics v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Celtics limped through their five-game west coast road trip. Without Marcus Smart, two games without Jaylen Brown, and a game without Kemba Walker, they managed to put together a 2-3 record against five Western Conference playoff teams. All things considered, has it been a successful February so far?

Greg Brueck-Cassoli: It’s hard to call any stretch of games that includes more losses than wins a success, but it certainly hasn’t been a disaster. Aside from their most recent loss to the Utah Jazz, Boston was competitive in every game they lost. The Celtics don’t have the depth to cover up the amount of injuries they’ve sustained against the league’s best, and for the most part that’s exactly who they’ve played. They also managed to take down the Clippers and Warriors, despite the challenges of being on the road and the rash of injuries they’re dealing with.

Failing to stay above .500 is never reason for celebration, but the sky is far from falling in Boston. If the Celtics can get healthy and Kemba Walker returns to something approximating his former self then early-February will just look like a small blip on the path to becoming a team nobody wants to see in the postseason. I’m betting that’s the most likely outcome.

Boston’s defense out west bloated to a 118.1 defensive rating. Much of that was due to the absence of Marcus Smart who’s nursing a strained calf, but could you argue that missing him hurt the offense just as much?

Jeremy Stevens: The Smart injury is one chunk of a greater issue. The Celtics’ top four players have played a grand total of 28 minutes together this season. The 76ers’ top-4 has 322 minutes together. Smart being statistically neutral on offense actually puts him above most of his teammates, and if nothing else, Boston could use stability from their best distributor. Smart has 103 assists to 30 turnovers, which is a pretty fantastic rate.