Two straight defeats have ensured the feel-good factor surrounding the Boston Celtics has quickly evaporated. The two defeats are bad enough, but the defensive frailties which they both exposed are what’s exacerbated the growing concern among the fanbase.
Until Robert Williams returns to the rotation, Boston appears to be short-handed in the front court, as their backup options of Noah Vonleh, Luke Kornet, and Blake Griffin all seem to have their drawbacks. So, Joe Mazzulla will need to get creative in how he deploys his rotations in Sunday’s game against the Washington Wizards, especially now Boston needs a win to remain above .500 at this early juncture of the season.
With all that said, here are my three tickets to triumph against the Wizards.
Continue to focus on offense
After losing two straight games due to a struggling defense, it’s understandable why so much talk has been centered around rediscovering the stringent form that saw the Celtics labeled as the best defensive team in the NBA. However, those defensive cracks have been there since opening night.
The difference is, over their first three games, the Celtics simply out-fought their opponents on the offensive end of the floor, leaning into the significant scoring powers they have at their disposal. It was only once Boston began overthinking their defense that things started to fall apart on both sides of the court.
Don’t get me wrong, I, like everyone else, want to see the Celtics become a defensive powerhouse again, but the fact of the matter is, Rob Williams is a significant part of their identity on that side of the floor, and the team simply doesn’t have a like-for-like understudy to help steady the ship in his absence.
Until the bouncy big man returns to the rotation, focusing on outscoring opponents while working towards winning habits on the defensive end appears to be Mazzulla’s best option. As we’ve seen in the past two games, Vonleh isn’t the answer, especially when pulled out onto the perimeter. Kornet can give you some rim protection, but his limited mobility when flipping his hips ensures he’s a target when caught out of drop position, and Blake Griffin is far from the superstar we once knew.
According to @cleantheglass, the Celtics did a solid job of forcing the Cavs into unfavorable shots— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 29, 2022
24% of shots at the rim
30% of shots in the short mid-range
12% of shots long-mid
7% of shots corner three
28% of shots non-corner three
So, if the Celtics can pressure the perimeter, limit rim attempts and then get out and run on offense, they should be well-positioned to rediscover a winning formula until Williams returns and the defense experiences its logical uptick.
Pressure the rim
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Celtics currently rank 15th in the league for the frequency in which they attack the rim - with 34.5% of their entire offense coming within 4 feet of the cup. On the flip side, no other team is shooting the 3 as frequently as Boston, with 43.1% of their offense coming from beyond the perimeter.
While these two shots types are unquestionably the most analytically favored, it wouldn’t hurt the Celtics to increase their rim frequency a little bit. After all, it’s not like Boston has anyone that’s known for gobbling up offensive rebounds, and at times, they can get a little caught up in trying to hit the knock-out punch from deep.
43.1% of the Celtics offense is coming from three over their first 5 games - 1st NBA.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 30, 2022
22.3% is coming from mid-range - 29th in the league
And 34.5% is coming at the rim - 15th in the league
Ideally, I'd like to see a little more effort to attack the rim
Slightly reducing the number of threes they take in order to attack the rim a little bit more would certainly help keep the team in rhythm and force the defense to alter how they defend pick-and-rolls and/or off-ball cuts, which in turn, could theoretically create some additional space for jump-shots after the ball has been swung to a shooter following a drive.
Experiment with some deeper rotation players
In professional sports, winning is always the aim. However, at this early juncture of the season, experimenting with situational rotations and lineups is expected. Sam Hauser, who has been automatic from deep, should be seeing the floor a little more, as should Payton Pritchard.
Heading into the game against Washington, Malcolm Brogdon is listed as questionable, which means Pritchard may get some significant run in the rotation. Nevertheless, we saw the sharpshooting guard struggle under similar circumstances last season, where his playing time was sporadic as he filled in for Dennis Schroder from time to time.
For years, we, as fans, have (metaphorically) pleaded with the Celtics' front office to give the team some additional shooters off the bench, regardless of the limitations a single-skill shooter generally comes with. Now, both Pritchard and Hauser reside on the roster, but their minutes are sporadic, yet we expect their performances to be on point every time.
Giving the shooters some extra rope to find their rhythm and build their confidence isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it will ensure that when you actually need them to come off the bench and get you a bucket, they’re confident enough to do so. Hopefully, we see more of Pritchard and Hauser in the coming game against Washington.
Boston’s two straight losses have clearly shone a light on some of the defensive issues facing the team, especially in terms of the scheme, communication, and winning habits. Yet, we’re five games into the regular season, and if we’re being honest, we shouldn’t want the team to peak this early, or even be bordering on their peak.
The season opened on October 18 — less than two weeks ago. Expecting Boston, who has undergone significant upheaval this summer, to have everything figured out so early, is unfair. For now, while the Celtics continue to develop their defensive identity, it makes sense if they revert to focusing on their offense and using their elite skills to win games via shootouts. It might not be sustainable in the long-term, but right now, the roster needs a confidence boost, and winning a few games in an enjoyable fashion is the quickest way to achieve it.