The Boston Celtics are going through a tough stretch, and it's fair to wonder what exactly their identity is right now.
For much of last year, especially in the second half of the regular season and through their run to the NBA Finals, it was defense that carried the Celtics. Even when the 3-point shooting and ball movement weren't good enough, the elite defense was almost always still there to give this team a chance to win.
That hasn't been the case for stretches of the 2022-23 campaign.
Boston has lost three of its last four games, including back-to-back defeats where this team blew double-digit leads to inferior opponents. The latest example came Sunday night when the C's had a double-digit second-half advantage over the New York Knicks but lost in double overtime at home. It was the Celtics' second loss to the Knicks in the last seven days. The C's also coughed up a 28-point lead in a loss to the Brooklyn Nets last Friday.
What exactly is the identity of this Celtics group on March 6?
Brian Scalabrine and Eddie House discussed this topic during NBC Sports Boston's "Celtics Postgame Live" on Sunday night, and neither ex-Celtic could figure it out.
"What is our championship identity?" Scalabrine asked. "At one point, I thought it was going to be defense, and then it was, at the beginning of the year, pace and space and all that. I'm really searching for (the Celtics') championship identity right now. In a game like today, no matter if you're making or missing shots, you establish what you are and you do it over and over again. I don't actually know what (the identity) is at this point."
House isn't sure, either.
"A championship identity is solidified. You are what you are. You know how you're going to play night in and night out," House explained. "Everybody can bank on one thing you're going to do. You might do a few other things way better and that puts you over the hump, but what is our identity? At the beginning of the year it was 3-pointers. We're knocking downs 3s, we're patient, we're playing with pace and we're sharing the basketball. And then it became we're defending, we're not knocking down the 3. I have no idea. I'm kinda at a loss for words knowing exactly what our identity is. I don't know. Night in and night out it's different."
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When Scalabrine watches some of the other contenders, he sees a clear identity for them. It's a bit different with the Celtics.
"I'm not sure what we're hanging our hat on everyday," Scalabrine said. "I know how we're starting every game, but an identity is woven into the fabric of who you are no matter what happens. It doesn't matter if you're up or down. It doesn't matter if a team goes on a run or you're on a run. Your identity -- I'm having a hard time -- are we an offensive team, are we a defensive team, are we a pace team, are we a spread-them-out team? I'm trying to figure it out. I kind of think, since the All-Star break -- whatever happened there -- I don't think we've had our identity. I think we've had moments, but even in the Cleveland win, which I think was a decent win, we still had moments where we let go of the rope.
"And (Monday) on a back-to-back, we played a bunch of minutes (Sunday) and we're playing a tough Cavs team that's really good at home. These guys have got to find out who they are because you watch the rest of the league -- and today was a great day for the league -- I'm watching Phoenix, they already know who they are. And then I'm watching Dallas, Golden State, the Lakers, and last night Philly and Milwaukee. All these teams, I know what their identity is. I'm a Celtics guy. I'm here everyday watching these dudes live and I'm having a hard time finding out what it is."
The Celtics still have time to fine tune their game and establish a real identity. It could still be defense. This year's team ranks No. 4 in defensive rating and has tons of good one-on-one defenders, including the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Smart. Outside shooting will be hot and cold at times, but great defense can be consistent because effort and hustle are such important parts of it.
Several Celtics players, including Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, said after Sunday's loss that they remain confident the team will figure things out. There are reasons to believe them -- they've arguably been the league's best team most of the season -- but the playoffs are fast approaching and there will be no easy series in the Eastern Conference.