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Joe Mazzulla stresses defense during Celtics’ shooting slump: ‘has to be our identity’

Boston has entered a cold spell from behind the three-point arc, but their defense can’t keep suffering because of it.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

BOSTON – A third loss in four games saw TD Garden fans leave disappointed on Friday night as the Boston Celtics fell to the Orlando Magic, 117-109. After dropping two of their three games in California (and just scraping by in the one win they walked away with), a homestand seemed to be exactly what Boston needed, but their return home and the return of Robert Williams was spoiled.

It wasn’t spoiled by a superstar, an insane stat line, or a hard-fought battle. Instead, the Celtics got in their own way, allowing Moritz Wagner to drop 25 points while their offense sputtered. After a hot start, the Celtics are officially slumping.

But just because the shots aren’t falling doesn’t mean they should stop taking them, according to head coach Joe Mazzulla. He still wants his team taking open threes when they come their way, but when the makes aren’t there, they need to adjust on defense.

“If you’re open, you gotta shoot it. And we’re open. So, I’m not going to tell someone that’s open not to shoot it… When we don’t shoot well, we need to find other areas to affect the game, and that starts with our defense.”

Boston shot just 11-of-46 (23.9%) from distance against the Magic, adding to their recent shooting woes. Over their last four games, the Celtics have the second-worst shooting percentage in the NBA at 29.5%. Sam Hauser is shooting 20.0%, Derrick White is shooting 21.4%, and Marcus Smart is shooting 28.6% from deep over that span.

However, Mazzulla still emphasized the importance of taking open shots when they’re available. He said that the Celtics were getting good looks against Orlando, but when they weren’t falling, they should have honed in on their defense to help the offense get going.

“Even when they’re not going in, you gotta fight. Keep moving the ball and shoot it. And as far as defensively, we can get stops, get out, and get easy ones. That’s just one part of it, and I think it has more to do with our defensive stretches… Just gotta get better in that area.”

It was a sloppy performance for the Celtics on Friday night, as the turnover bug has hit them again, as they gave the ball away 14 times against Orlando. They also lacked energy, allowing the Magic to hunt down offensive rebounds left and right. The Magic tallied 15 offensive boards which, in part, led to 20 second-chance points.

Jayson Tatum pointed to these problems as the main factors that prevented the Celtics from making a run. He said Boston’s lack of shot-making caused them to falter and helped the Magic get comfortable.

“S***, turnovers and missed shots. I think, in a way, we started well, but after the first seven, eight minutes, we didn’t - I feel like we kind of let turnovers and missed shots affect our play. We didn’t have much energy. And that was everybody. We had a few good plays, but we didn’t put three, four five of them together. And they got comfortable.”

Before their now-infamous three-game California skid, the Celtics had the best offense in league history. Now, that’s no longer the case. Slumps happen throughout the course of an 82-game season but responding accordingly is what’s important. For Boston, that should mean locking in on defense - their calling card all of last year. That simply hasn’t been the case.

In their last four games, the Celtics have allowed 117.8 points per game, which ranks 20th over that span. Applied to the entire season, that number would be the second-worst in the league.

Obviously, there’s some element of luck involved. The Celtics aren’t always going to shoot as well as they did to start the season, and sometimes, opposing teams just get hot. But Boston needs to be able to control what they can control. And when the shots aren’t falling, Mazzulla made it clear that the defense can’t suffer because of it.

“If it doesn’t feel like we’re playing well on offense. Our defense still has to be our identity… We just have to connect the game regardless of the result.”

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