Brad Stevens' leadership will be vital to end Celtics' struggles

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Brad Stevens' leadership will be vital to end Celtics' struggles

BOSTON – The wounds are still too fresh for the Boston Celtics to put their pre-All Star break play in perspective.

Boston (40-19) has lost three straight and four of its last five games, and are not exactly playing the kind of basketball that anyone with visions of a season that spills into the month of June would want.

But just like they refused to let their 16-game winning streak earlier this season define them, the same holds true for their recent skid. 

Put it this way: if you would have told Danny Ainge and the Celtics that they would have the second-best record in the East going into the break and get just five minutes of play from Gordon Hayward all season, he would gladly sign off on that and we’d chock it up to another shrewd move by Ainge.

This recent stretch has absolutely set off alarm bells that all of Brad Stevens’ talk about this team not being as good as its record, may be true.

But let’s remember the one truth in all this. Regardless of how well or woeful you play, your record at the end of the day is who you are. And the Celtics, for all the ups and downs this season, are the second-best team in the East. 

And as they hit the unofficial halfway point of the season (there’s actually more like a third of the season left for most teams), here are five key takeaways to be mindful of as they try to finish out the regular season strong.

MORE REACTION FROM CELTICS vs. CLIPPERS:

JAYSON TATUM

No rookie under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens has hit the ground running like Tatum. With most first-year players, they will provide glimpses of potential greatness. Tatum’s entire season has dispelled that myth. In it’s place, we have seen a 19-year-old play with a level of poise and focus seldom seen in a player so young. He ranks among the all-time great Celtic rookies in scoring, and for a period of time was on the short list as a legit Rookie of the Year candidate. But his play the last month or so has been inconsistent, in part because of the usual rookie struggles but also because of a finger injury. Having a few days off should do wonders for the 19-year-old, both mentally and physically. 

BRAD STEVENS

He gets a lot of credit for his play-calling, especially is A-T-O’s (after time-outs). But this season thus far, Stevens deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team from completely falling apart following Gordon Hayward’s dislocated left ankle injury just five minutes into the season. He refused to let his play through mistakes, but instead learn from film study before and after games, in addition to leaning on the team’s veterans for on and off-the-floor guidance. And in the midst of their worst stretch of play, his leadership will be vital in Boston’s ability to regain the footing that they have lost in recent weeks.

DEFENSE

Without a true shot blocker or an established lock-down defender in the first unit, the Boston Celtics opened the season playing elite level defense from top to bottom. Through the month of December, Boston had a league-best defensive rating of 100.8 which heavily factored in them having the best record in the East for most of this season.

Dating back to Boston’s trip to London when the Celtics played Philadelphia, there has been a clear and undeniable erosion of their defensive toughness. Boston’s post-London defense rating is 104.2 which ranks eighth in the NBA since then. Injuries have been a factor, but that doesn’t excuse what has been a precipitous fall-off. Boston’s defense has been even worst in the month of February as their defensive rating fell to 109.3 which ranks 18th in the league. Marcus Smart will be ready to go immediately after the break, as will Shane Larkin who has proven to be a surprisingly better defender than the Celtics initially thought. Their return, coupled with a renewed focus defensively should be just what the Celtics need defensively to get back on course.

BENCH SCORING

One of the more consistent knocks against the Celtics has been their bench and its struggles generating offense. According to hoopsstats.com, Boston’s reserves are averaging 32.1 points per game which ranks 23rd in the NBA. Of course, joining them in the bottom-10 are high-powered offenses like Houston and Oklahoma City which rely heavily on their starting fives to carry the scoring load which is evident by both ranked among the league’s top-five in points per game from starters. Meanwhile the Celtics’ starting five ranks 14th in points per game according to hoopsstats.com. But Boston’s bench production has been on an upswing lately.

In their last five games, Boston’s bench has averaged 38.0 points per game which ranks ninth in the league during that span. Headlining Boston’s offensive resurgence has been Marcus Morris.

He has reached double figures scoring in 13 of his last 14 games which includes a personal-best of 11 straight games with 10 or more points scored.

Boston has also received a nice lift off the bench lately from Terry Rozier.

Ever since he returned to the bench after getting three starts for an injured Kyrie Irving, Rozier has become a much more aggressive scorer coming off the bench. In that span, he has averaged 14.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.  

KYRIE IRVING    

When Boston made the trade, you knew Kyrie Irving would be looked upon as the team’s face-of-the-franchise leader. But leadership was not a known trait of Irving’s prior to his arrival in Boston. Those first few years in Cleveland, Irving was trying to establish himself as a player and like most of the league’s young players, he wasn’t able to provide the kind of leadership needed to be successful. Then came LeBron James, re-claiming his spot as the team’s leader. Irving wanted out in part to lead his own team, and to his credit he’s done a good job thus far. He has both challenged and encouraged his young teammates on several fronts and to their credit, have responded positively more often than not.

But Irving knows there’s more he has to give, well aware that the collective efforts of the Celtics has to be amplified during this end-of-the-season stretch leading into the playoffs.

Blakely: Celtics find themselves broken at the break

Blakely: Celtics find themselves broken at the break

BOSTON – There weren’t many Celtics players who showed up for the postgame scrum with the media following the 129-119 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.

That’s not surprising.

There weren’t that many who showed up to play, anyway.

Some will chalk it up to just being a bad game for the Celtics, while others might point to the absence of Marcus Smart finally catching up to them.

The reasons for the loss are all over the map, but the one thing we know is this: the Celtics got punked by the Clippers, pure and simple.

L.A. got whatever shot it wanted and attacked the paint at will to escape with a 10-point win in a game that wasn’t that close in terms of control.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been sounding an alarm of concern most of this season.

“I think teams have outplayed us,” Stevens said after the disappointing loss prior to the All-Star break. “You know I don’t think – I’ve said all along, I don’t think we were all we were cracked up to be during our 16-game winning streak, and it’s probably hit us more in the last month than it hit us before, and teams have outplayed us, good teams have outplayed us; that was the case again tonight.”

Maybe Stevens is right.

Maybe the Celtics aren’t as good as their 40-19 record might indicate.

Those of us who see the resilient fight, the never-say-it’s-over brand of basketball that has become synonymous with the Celtics for most of this season, are indeed searching for answers as to how a team that was so dominant defensively, has fallen off so quickly with no clear-cut signs of improvement.

The 129 points they gave up to the Clippers was a season-high.

The previous high?

That was just three days earlier when the Celtics lost 121-99 to the Cavaliers.

So, for those keeping score at home, Boston has given up 121 points or more in each of their past two games after having failed to give up that many in the Celtics’ previous 57 games.

“I think that the theme here is our defense needs to be better,” Horford said. “We’re a group that we’ve built what we have so far based on the defensive end and we’ve taken a big step back on that, it’s obvious, the past few games.”

And while the Celtics have plenty of time to get back on track, you can bank on this All-Star break providing the players with time to heal, both mentally and physically.

“There’s two main things that you can control in this game,” said Kyrie Irving. “And that’s attitude and effort and if you’re not doing that at a very high level and staying poised and trying to make the best decisions for the team, you know it’s hard to play against. [There are] great teams in this league, so that’s definitely a point of emphasis for our team going forward.”

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Celtics have one eye on break and another on what's ahead

Celtics have one eye on break and another on what's ahead

BOSTON – There’s a delicate balance that the Celtics have been walking all season, one in which they are focused on the moment while keeping an eye towards the future.

As important as it is for the Celtics to close out their pre-All-Star break schedule with a win, being aware of what’s around the corner is also important.

“I’ve gone to the All-Star break, done some of the right things. I’ve gone to All-Star break, done some of the wrong things,” said Kyrie Irving. “Just because...it’s a learning experience as a professional. The biggest key is how focused are you? How much do you want it? I’m gonna echo that statement to my teammates and I know our leaders of this team will do the same thing.”

Boston has been among the top-three teams most of this season in the East and now are a game behind the Toronto Raptors for the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics will play 14 of their remaining 23 games after tonight on the road, with their post All-Star schedule beginning away from the TD Garden against Detroit and New York – two teams that have each beaten the Celtics earlier this season.

“Coming out of the All-Star break, the wheels are really, really going at that point,” Irving said. “We only have a certain amount of games to cement our identity as a team before going into the playoffs.”

And while it isn’t a topic of discussion, the Celtics understand the habits they gradually build on today, will have a direct impact on how they fare in the postseason.

That’s why coach Brad Stevens has been consistent all season in expressing what he sees as a difference between his team’s record and their overall play.

“I’ve said all along, I don’t think we’re quite as good as our record,” Stevens said. “We gotta get a lot better. I still feel that way.”

Driving that point home becomes a lot easier when you’ve lost three of four and trailed by 20 or more points in each of the losses.

But even before the recent skid, Stevens has been the team’s hardest critic, reminding folks of the team’s flaws even when they were flourishing on the floor in terms of winning games.

The need for improvement is not lost on veterans who know how quickly success can be transformed into struggles.

And while Boston’s offense has had its problems, Al Horford maintains it is the team’s defense that has to in many ways help jumpstart the offense.

“We have to be able to play faster, we have to be able to play with more pace on offense to have any success,” Horford said. “It starts with the defensive end and transitioning into offense. If we’re able to get turnovers or get the ball in-bound quickly and fly up the floor that will help us.”

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