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Cracks in the dam: injuries and absences are taking their toll on the Celtics’ defense

Boston has an embarrassment of riches in terms of individual defenders, but having two of them sidelined is a serious issue.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Payton Pritchard isn’t a particularly large individual. At 6’1” and 195 pounds, his ability to play in the NBA despite his relatively diminutive stature is fairly awe inspiring. But in Game 1 of the Boston Celtics’ Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Miami Heat, Pritchard was not a feel-good story about a scrappy undersized guard.

He was baby food.

Jimmy Butler took advantage of Pritchard on mismatches repeatedly. Salting away the game down the stretch with a blend of midrange shot making and foul drawing.

Butler managed to score seven points (including 3 makes on 4 trips to the free throw line) against the Celtics’ backup point guard, despite the fact that Pritchard only guarded him for one minute and fifty-three seconds of game time.

It’s hard to really criticize Pritchard for what happened. He isn’t supposed to be playing such significant minutes at this point of the year. Boston was missing both Marcus Smart (foot strain) and Al Horford (health and safety protocols). With a healthy roster, head coach Ime Udoka has used Pritchard to provide extra zing to the offense in short bursts, rather than as a primary cog in the machine.

That doesn’t change the reality that playing Pritchard major minutes exposed a weak point in the Celtics’ defense that could and will be exploited ad nauseam. At full health Boston can roll out multiple lineups with zero defensive liabilities. In fact, the Celtics have a seven-man rotation that is nothing but extremely good defenders. It’s what Boston has hung its hat on all year.

When Smart and Horford are in the fold, the Celtics are about as strong a dam as can be imagined defensively. Pritchard represents a crack in that dam. Butler was the most prominent stream of water that broke through it in Game 1, but the real concern is the flooding that may occur as a result of providing Miami with a consistent point of attack.

Boston headed into this series with a clear advantage in its dominant halfcourt defense, which juxtaposed nicely with some limitations the Heat have attacking in the halfcourt. That advantage was set to be a constant at full strength. The Celtics are now stuck navigating a dance of how to play their best players without running them into the ground, while not offering the Heat too many chances to pick at bench players, like Pritchard, with defensive warts (Daniel Theis fits this category when matched up against Bam Adebayo as well).

There are things Boston can do to help make things easier on themselves. Cutting down on live ball turnovers stands out as a simple solution. If the team’s halfcourt defense is going to slip slightly without Smart and Horford, then they need to make sure they’re not compounding that by giving up easy points on the break.

Pick-and-rolls with Butler as the ballhandler should also not be automatic switches when Pritchard’s man is the screener. Boston needs to avoid that mismatch as much as possible. The Celtics can live with going under in such scenarios and forcing Butler to prove he can beat them shooting threes off the bounce if he is so inclined. The Celtics tried that option a bit in the game’s final minutes, but it was too little too late.

The good news is that the sky isn’t completely falling in Boston. Most teams don’t get to play a full rotation of players without defensive weaknesses. The Celtics will be learning how to do so on the fly, but it’s not an impossible task, and Boston still has an incredible amount of defensive talent at its disposal.

It’s truly unfortunate that injuries and COVID protocols are the reason that the Celtics have seen one of their strongest advantages against the Heat somewhat neutralized, but the path to the NBA Finals isn’t easy, and no one from Miami will be feeling bad for them. Boston needs to figure out how to make the version of its roster that is available work. That starts with minimizing the impact of its new potential points of failure on defense.