BOSTON – As Al Horford made his way into the interview room following the All-Star Game, he was all smiles, despite his team winding up with the loss.
Horford’s emotions had nothing to do with the then-completed game.
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He was in on-to-the-next-one mode as his thoughts immediately shifted towards what he sees as unfinished business as the Celtics focus on finishing the regular season playing well and building some momentum heading into the playoffs.
“I’m just excited that now we can move on,” Horford said. “We did this [All-Star Game]. It was great. Now, we can shift our focus back on what we need to do. For our group, we really need to tighten up on the defensive end and refocusing and understanding the things that got us to where we were. The reason why we were winning is defense and rebounding.”
Indeed, shoddy defense and poor rebounding have been key bugaboos for the Celtics lately, the former being somewhat surprising considering Boston’s success most of this season is deeply rooted in them getting the job done at a high level at the defensive end of the floor.
Boston (40-19) has dropped four of their past five games in large part because they have become a bottom-10 team in several categories related to their defense and rebounding.
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In the past five games, Boston has allowed 110.1 points per game which ranks 21st in the NBA.
Among the top three teams in defensive ranking most of this season, the past five games have led to the Celtics’ defensive rating climbing to 111.4 in that span, which ranks 22nd in the league.
That’s a sharp detour from their season numbers (100.9), which are tops among all teams in the NBA.
Similar struggles can be found in Boston’s rebounding. The numbers there are among the worst in the league after being in the top half most of this season.
The Celtics have averaged 42.0 rebounds in the past five games, good for 21st in the NBA. For the season, Boston averages 44.1 rebounds which ranks 11th in the league.
And Boston’s rebounding percentage in the past five games is .478, which ranks 26th in the league. For the season, their rebounding percentage (.501) is 14th in the league.
Boston’s increased emphasis on improving its offense has at times been blamed for the defensive slippage, the Celtics have been crappy in that part of the game as well recently.
In the past five games, Boston’s offensive rating is 100.1, which is 27th in the league. That’s a noticeable dip for an offense that has struggled most of this season, evident by their offensive rating this season (104.4, 21st in the NBA) also ranked among the league’s bottom-10.
While no one player by themselves will get this team back on track defensively, they will be closer to being complete this week with the expected return of Marcus Smart, who ranks among the league’s top defenders in both the eye test as well as when you crunch the numbers.
His return strengthens a defensive unit that has played at an elite level most of this season.
Of the players averaging at least 30 minutes played per game, four Celtics – Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – rank among the top five in defensive rating.
Kyrie Irving hasn’t been too shabby a defender himself, coming in with the 11th-best defensive rating among players logging 30 or more minutes per game.
The mindset coming back from the break is to improve in all phases of play, obviously.
But knowing how much better they are when they defend and rebound at a fairly high level and the results that such play brings, it should come as no surprise if the Celtics revert to those early-season slugfests when the points were few and far between but the end result – a Celtics win – was a common occurrence.
“Those are the things [defense and rebounding] coach [Brad Stevens] and the group are going to focus on,” Horford said. “And finish these last few games the right way.”