Celtics

Through four games, issues apparent for Celtics

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Through four games, issues apparent for Celtics

BOSTON The Boston Celtics are riding a two-game winning streak, no longer have a losing record and finally got some energy from what has been an anemic-looking bench.

But things are far from rosy on this team.

As much as the two victories helped get them get off the snide, they also highlighted just how far away this team is now, from being the title contender that they look like on paper.

For this team, it all begins with the starters.

Even though the Celtics boost three all-stars, it means nothing if the two guys around them don't fit in well.

Courtney Lee has done a so-so job at shooting guard. But like the rest of the team, he has to become a more consistent player at both ends of the floor.

Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger have split time at the power forward slot with Bass' two starts ending with the C's losing both games while Sullinger's two starts netted a pair of wins.

Ironically, in the two Boston victories - especially Wednesday's overtime win over Washington - Bass was actually the better player when coming off the bench.

Do not be shocked if Doc Rivers decides to ride out Sullinger with the first group for a little while longer.

From there you move on to the bench which has been underwhelming most of this still-young season.

In fact, Wednesday's 100-94 overtime win was easily their best game thus far.

Jason Terry made it a goal for the C's second unit to outscore opponents every game this season.

At this point, if they can outscore one opponent's second unit, that would be progress.

While this group does have the kind of firepower a Celtics second unit hasn't had in years, this is still a team that's rooted in strong defensive play.

And it's not a total shock that a second unit that's loaded with "professional scorers," has been up and down in terms of latching on to the C's defensive principles and executing them consistently.

This group should improve in time, especially if you keep Bass as a reserve.

That said, there are a still a few other issues that have to be worked out in the coming weeks and months for Boston to come close to reaching the immense potential that this team possesses.

DEFENSE CONSISTENCY

Of course that is to a large degree tied into the various new pieces meshing with those more well-versed on Doc Rivers' defensive system.

The most glaring challenge the Celtics have now comes in terms of Kevin Garnett getting help defensively.

Not only when he leaves the game and takes a rest, but also when he's on the floor.

Washington's Kevin Seraphin was a throw-back of sorts big man who gave Garnett problems in both games against the Wizards this year. Not surprisingly, Garnett did a much better job on him when the two teams met on Wednesday, in comparison to their first matchup last Saturday.

But that doesn't take away from the fact that with a player like Seraphin, Garnett needed help from time to time.

And when Garnett was out of the game, the C's interior defense got progressively worst.

There isn't a single player on this roster who can enter a game and provide the defensive presence that Garnett does. But the C's have to find someone who can at least provide some force in the middle so that the lane doesn't become a turnstile for dribble-penetrating opponents.

During the preseason, it looked as though Darko Milicic might have been that guy. But a wrist injury slowed him down, and small ball has kept him even more buried on the bench.

Wilcox is another option, but he's not really a shot-blocker. Plus he's still trying to regain his strength after missing most of last season. Jason Collins is a smart big man who understands how to play the game, but his lack of foot speed and agility on the floor will make it hard for him to provide the kind of steady defensive presence the C's have been lacking most nights when Rivers turns to his bench.

JEFF GREEN

It's hard not to find yourself rooting for Green when you consider his across-the-board skills and all that he has gone through this past year.

But putting sentimentality aside, he's not getting it done.

The attacking, aggressive brand of basketball we saw in Europe and state-side during the preseason, is nowhere to be found.

Now the level of competition certainly plays a role. His body getting used to the rigors of the NBA after a year off, will undoubtedly take some time for him to get up to speed.

But that should not take away from his aggression; not to the extent that we have seen so little of thus far.

It's not all that complicated.

Green has to start playing better.

Period.

BACKUP BIG MAN CONCERNS

Doc Rivers doesn't seem all that worried about his perimeter guys defensively, and with good reason.

He's going to get Avery Bradley back next month.

But there is still a bit of a void in the frontcourt with this team even with the three-headed monster of Chris Wilcox, Darko Miliicic and Jason Collins.

Of the three, Wilcox has the best shot of helping them, provided he can continue to get his body right and his conditioning up to par after missing most of last season following heart surgery.

He was arguably the biggest game-changer for the Celtics in their win over Washington on Wednesday, tallying six points in less than four minutes in helping Boston close out the third quarter with a 10-2 run.

That kind of immediate impact production has to become more consistent from Boston's backup big men.

With the C's so committed to going small more often, playing time for the team's big men has to be maximized.

That's exactly what Wilcox did on Wednesday.

Can he or one of Boston's other bigs do it consistently?

That remains to be seen.

"This is a process," said C's guard Jason Terry. "For us, it's about playing 48 minutes of Celtics basketball. (Wednesday night) we played in spurts, we played in stretches. That's not going to be good enough for us."

Celtics-Hawks preview: C' defense looks to keep up historic pace

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C' defense looks to keep up historic pace

As the wins continue to pile up for the Boston Celtics, so does the praise and adulation from others throughout the league. 

It’s a double-edged sword if you think about it. 

Acknowledging how good the Celtics are, is indeed a sign of respect. 

But it also means Boston plays every game with a large target on its back unlike any of Brad Stevens’ previous Celtics teams. 

And that means every game they play, even those like tonight’s matchup at Atlanta where they will be heavily favored, are dangerous matchups.

Because for some teams, the next best thing to competing against the champ (Golden State) is facing the team with the best record who just knocked off the champ. 

That will be one of the dynamics at work tonight when the Celtics (14-2) kick off a three-game road trip against a trio of sub-.500 teams beginning with the Hawks (3-12).

Boston has shown tremendous focus and attention to detail during their 14-game winning streak. But in that span, the Celtics have never had a trio of teams right behind each other that struggled as much as the Hawks, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks have this season. 

Not including games played on Friday, Boston’s next three opponents are a combined 11-33. 

All three of those teams would love to be the one to knock off the Celtics, the kind of victory that could significantly shift the direction of their respective franchises from their current downward spin. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics will look to continue to play with the kind of defensive temperament that has catapulted them to the top of the NBA’s defensive standings in several categories. 

“The way they’re beating teams it ain’t pretty,” a league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. “But they win. Last I checked, that’s what matters most.”

And that success has to a large degree, put a bigger bullseye on the Celtics than ever. 

“Now that we have a reputation, I think everyone is coming for us,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Now we have to come play even harder, and I think we can do that. I think we are more than capable.”

Especially if they continue to defend at a level we haven’t seen in years. 

Boston has a league-best defensive rating of 95.4. A key component in Boston’s strong play defensively has been their ability to win the battle of the boards. They come into tonight’s game with a .530 rebounding percentage which is second in the league to Portland (.539).

And that defense, while praised for how it functions collectively, it also consists of some pretty good individual defenders as well. 

Among guards averaging at least 20 minutes per game, Boston has four players ranked among the top 10 in defensive rating (Marcus Smart, 93.5 defensive rating, 2nd); Jaylen Brown (93.6, 3rd); Terry Rozier (95.0, 5th) and Kyrie Irving (96.4, 8th). 

When you look at forwards, Brown headlines a trio of forwards that includes himself, Al Horford (94.2, 3rd) and Jayson Tatum (96.1, 7th). 

Aron Baynes has the best defensive rating (90.6) among centers, followed by Horford (94.2).

“Our guys are locked in and really trying and again we can really play some pretty ugly basketball at times,” Stevens said. “But I do think that we are competing which is really good.”