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Celtics’ lack of defensive communication almost costs them against Pacers

Ime Udoka, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart all commented on Boston’s defensive lapses after their win over Indiana.

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

After a hard-fought battle, the Boston Celtics walked away with a win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night, 128-123. They survived dagger three after dagger three from Indiana in the fourth, hanging on to notch their 48th win of the season.

They managed to snap a two-game losing streak, but they gave up 123 points in the process, surviving on the back of two 30+-point performances from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

When asked about the team’s defensive effort, Ime Udoka noted a lack of communication as a main issue not only against the Pacers, but over Boston’s last few games.

“Obviously, they’re a different team with Halliburton and Hield, and some of the things they’re doing, flying around with the pace that they play with,” Udoka pointed out. “So, credit to them for that. They make it tough on you as far as that. But communication-wise, it’s a few games in a row now that we haven’t been as sharp as we need to be with the switching, with the communication. And that was a little bit more apparent tonight just like last game.”

Indiana’s 123-point outing marked the third time in four games that the C’s have given up at least 110 points. Since March 20, the Celtics have given up 109.5 points per game. And while that still ranks 11th in the NBA over that time span, it’s a step down from what they were able to do in the first half of March. From March 1 to March 20, they only allowed 101.4 points a night (first in the NBA).

After their loss to the Miami Heat, Udoka said that those situations are both helpful and necessary. However, when asked a similar question after the Indiana game, he stated that their poor defense was the only reason they were in that spot in the first place.

“In general, the meat of the game, we’d like to play better defense and not find ourselves in those situations where we have an 8-10 point lead and we can’t stretch it because we can’t string some stops together,” Udoka said. “And so, we got to get back to our physicality, communication was the main thing the last few games, and start defending at a higher level going into the playoffs.”

At the very start of the game, the Celtics jumped out to an 11-2 lead. But just as quickly as they went up, the Pacers tied it, going on a 9-0 run. Indiana did not have a single lead in the game, but the C’s never led by more than 10.

Jayson Tatum was also asked about Boston’s defense. Specifically, he was asked about how much the Celtics miss Robert Williams, who is currently out rehabbing after surgery to repair a meniscus tear. He told the media that while the C’s definitely miss Williams, they still have to be better, especially on the perimeter.

“I mean, communication, that’s on us,” Tatum said. “I guess just one of those nights. We know we’re a really good defensive team and there were a lot of areas tonight where we could have been better. Do we miss Rob? Of course, but some of the mistakes tonight weren’t because we didn’t have Rob. A lot of the communication on the perimeter, that was our fault. But we know we got to be better.”

Boston’s perimeter defense, or lack thereof, certainly showed up in the stats, as the Pacers shot 17-of-36 from behind the three-point line (47.2 percent). A good chunk of that damage was Tyrese Haliburton, who went 6-for-6 from deep and Oshae Brissett (4-for-7) made some clutch buckets down the stretch, too.

Marcus Smart was asked a similar question about Williams’ absence. And just like Tatum, he said that while the Celtics definitely miss Williams’ presence down low, but they also know they need to be better without him.

“We did get a little, you know, coddled with the fact that Rob was back there,” Smart said. “He cleaned up a lot of those mistakes. With him out, we got to change just a little bit. Everybody else has to give a little bit more than what they were because of that. And it’s is part of the game. We still have everybody else defensively that has been doing great on defense. And we’ll continue to do that with or without Rob. But obviously, you know, while he’s getting his recovery, we’ve got to hold it down for him.”

Indiana scored 46 points in the paint against Boston, which is about four points higher than what the Celtics have been allowing this season (42.4). But in these past three games without Williams, the number has spiked up to 48.7 a night.

Boston’s defense is going to have to make big adjustments with Williams out, and they are already experimenting with new starting groups because of it. After starting Grant Williams alongside Al Horford against the Heat, Udoka threw Daniel Theis in the starting five next to Horford against Indiana. Neither can replicate what Rob does, but adjusting and figuring out what works will be crucial.

The Celtics’ play again on Sunday afternoon when they take on the Washington Wizards in a matinee game. Tip-off at TD Garden is set for 1:00 p.m. and the game can be streamed on NBC Sports Boston.