Every NBA champion has an identity, be it a heliocentric approach revolving around a superstar talent or a stylistically distinguishable brand of basketball. Last season, under Ime Udoka, the Celtics discovered their identity as a ferocious defensive unit that took pride in shutting teams down and earning countless shot clock violations.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Celtics were a team you could root for, a team that was consistently impressive at one specific thing. Whenever you turned on your TV, tuned in to the radio broadcast, or attended a game live, you knew what you were signing up for.
We had a similar experience to start the season, where Joe Mazzulla essentially swapped defensive excellence for offensive superiority. Ball movement, player movement, fluid screening actions, and a willingness to drive the rock all became commonplace. Boston jumped out to a hot start and boasted an offense that had teams scratching their heads on the way back to the locker room.
Unfortunately, the Celtics have become the Harvey Dent of the NBA. One night, they’re about defense, the next offense, and then, we get a stretch of lethargic play where everything feels like an uphill battle. Without an identity, a team has nothing to fall back on when things aren’t going according to the script.
I remember throughout last season, my reasoning as to Boston’s defensive preference was that it was an effort-based identity, so even when shots weren’t falling, you could keep yourself in the game by working your butt off and making yourself hard to beat. Even when the Celtics were an offensive weapon to begin the season, their commitment to moving, driving and making the right read all pointed toward a sustainable system, irrespective of shot variance.
Yet, what we saw against the Houston Rockets on Monday night, was a sign of how lost the Celtics have become, where even the hustle battles were discarded. Can you believe that? A team that boasts Marcus Smart,the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, lost almost all of the hustle battles?
Houston contested more shots, had more screen assists, generated more screen assist points. They drew level on loose ball recoveries, and if it weren’t for a sloppy first quarter, likely would have won the deflections battle, too. Factor in Houston’s rebounding advantage, fewer turnovers, and success at getting to the line, and it’s quickly clear that Boston didn’t have an identity to fall back on as they looked for a way to seize control of a game they should never have struggled in.
“Taking care of the little things,” Jaylen Brown said, “Execution. We lost tonight, not really on execution, but lack of effort, not doing our job, the hard stuff, the little stuff is what adds up. The offensive rebounds and loose balls, turnovers. We didn’t deserve to win today.”
The Celtics have gone 5-and-5 since returning from the All-Star break and have failed to convince in each of those games. From a porous perimeter defense to an inability to control the tempo of games, the Celtics have provided us with every reason to be concerned.
What I found interesting when watching the loss against the Rockets was when the Celtics found an action that gave them some success on offense, they went back to it time and time again until Houston’s defense adjusted and the advantage was gone. In just the second quarter, Boston ran some variation of a chin or UCLA action (both of which were set up in a similar fashion) at least five times, with each of the coming in almost a concurrent fashion.
Sure, if something is working you run with it, but ideally, you don’t want to exhaust an option that clearly works in five or ten possessions — you stagger it and look to run the action when it’s going to be most effective, such as killing a barren spell, or late in the game when you need a bucket.
“This year, they played great to start the season. And now, it feels very familiar, where you see a 20-point lead that evaporates, late-game execution – that’s not there…This now is a moment of truth or moments of truth for Joe Mazzulla…He’s gotta get in their heads in the locker room,” Chris Mannix said during an NBC Sports Boston post-game show on March 7.
It was around this time last year when Boston discovered themselves as a genuine defensive force and honed in on what made them a special team, so we’re certainly not at the point where panic stations should be activated and we’re all screaming as we run around aimlessly. However, this last stretch of games is usually when a team finds its stride, doubles down on identity, and makes a push to finish the season with some wind in its sails (see: Bucks, Milwaukee). Instead, the Celtics are deflating and have no discernable identity to fall back on.
This season started in the most promising of fashions and could still deliver on an incredible scale, but for that to happen, they need to figure out who they are as a unit and what they want to be known for. Because, right now, all they’re known for is jacking up a ton of threes regardless of the outcome, and suffice to say, that isn’t an identity; it’s a toxic personality trait.
If there was ever a time to look in the mirror, it’s now. With just 13 games remaining of the regular season, the Celtics need to identify an identity or risk going into the postseason at the mercy of their three-point shooting, and we’re all bearing witness to how that’s an unreliable sidekick.