Maybe Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens could sense the frustration in his team’s locker room following Saturday’s embarrassing loss to the Los Angeles Clippers because, before the room opened to reporters, Stevens did all he could to direct the criticism for his team’s 28-point collapse to himself.
"I think I need to look at myself first and figure out what I can do to help [Boston giving away big leads] not happen,” said Stevens, whose team fumbled away double-digit leads in consecutive games with disappointing losses to both Los Angeles teams. "If that means we need to play different rotations, call different things, start differently in quarters than we are, whatever the case may be, there’s an answer out there and we just have to find it.”
Where should Stevens start his search for answers? A few thoughts:
GET SOME MORE JUICE
Stevens noted how Boston’s defense in the middle quarters has been bad all season, particularly compared to the first and fourth quarters. He wondered out loud if he has to manage those minutes better, hinting as possible rotation tweaks.
A look at what Stevens is referring to:
Celtics defensive rating by quarter (with league rank):
1st 99.2 (1st)
2nd 109.3 (13th)
3rd 109.5 (15th)
4th 104.5 (4th)
Total 105.5 (5th)
The second-quarter woes can be explained away, in part, due to the the way Boston leans on reserve-heavy units early in the second frame. The Celtics’ bench players have struggled with consistency this year, explaining some of the slippage. The third-quarter struggles are a bit more confounding, particularly given how good Boston’s starters have been at the start and end of games.
The starting 5 that Boston has had in place since Nov. 26, the day Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart shuffled into starting roles, has been one of the best five-man groups in the NBA this season. Among the 23 high-volume lineups with 250+ minutes of floor time this season, Boston’s starting 5 ranks eighth in the NBA with a net rating of plus-11.9.
Slightly more concerning is that Boston’s starting group has a net rating of minus-2.4 over the past five games, a big dropoff from the numbers that had them lingering next to Golden State’s most-common 5-man lineup before diving a bit recently.
Morris went so far as to suggest that the team could shuffle him to a reserve role if it would help.
"We have to genuinely want to win, that has to be the first goal, whatever that change is, I’m with it,” said Morris. "They want to take me out of the starting lineup, get some juice in there, I’m with it, man. But I’m trying to win.”
Morris might have been suggesting that it was time for Jaylen Brown, whose nicknames include Juice, to elevate back to the starting group.
A better compromise for Stevens might be sticking with the current starting group but examining whether the team needs to tweak lineups at the start of the second half. Stevens often modified his lineups to open the second half in past seasons while searching for certain matchups, advantages, or just a jolt of energy.
TIME(OUT) FOR A CHANGE
Stevens is a card-carrying member of the Gregg Popovich Early Timeout Fan Club. Stevens routinely calls timeouts early in quarters when his team’s execution or focus is suspect. It feels like there’s been an awful lot of early third-quarter timeouts this season, including one just 2:02 into second half on Saturday night after the Clippers chipped a 21-point halftime deficit to 17.
But Stevens noticeably didn’t call a timeout the rest of the third quarter Saturday as Boston’s lead whittled to five. His next timeout didn’t come until there was 3:19 remaining and Boston had fallen behind by four points.
"My err is always on the side of letting us play through it and having to find ways, so you can save those going into the fourth [quarter],” said Stevens. “Ultimately, maybe that’s one of the things I need to do differently with this group. Maybe that’ll help.”
Stevens has often noted how his team needs to be better able to able to stem runs, pointing out the differences between an 11-0 run and, say, a 9-4 burst.
Stevens likes to stash timeouts for crunch time but he might have to be more willing to call timeout when runs get uncomfortable, regardless of when they happen. Simply being able to draw up a play might help his team stunt a run.
COACHING THROUGH EXPECTATIONS
Stevens hasn’t been perfect this season and he’d be the first to admit it. But his biggest challenge might be right in front of him now, and it might not be as easy to fix as a rotation change.
On the heels of Morris’ comments about a joyless team, Stevens has to make sure his team rallies in the aftermath of the critique, and doesn’t crumble.
Clearly, the Celtics have struggled with the burden of expectations this season. The team’s identity for much of the Stevens era has been a spunky bunch of overachievers who spit in the face of adversity and play their best basketball when everyone else counts them out.
This year’s team hasn’t routinely displayed the sort of mental toughness that past teams routinely oozed. The uneven start to the season led to frustrations (Marcus Smart venting in Portland) and some finger-pointing (Kyrie Irving calling out the younger players in Orlando, then admitting his missteps as a leader in the aftermath). It’s all contributed to a weird dynamic in the Celtics’ locker room this year, one in which it feels like Boston younger players might be walking on eggshells at times. The speculation about Irving’s future and Boston’s not-so-subtle planned pursuit of Anthony Davis this summer has maybe only added some awkwardness to it all.
Stevens’ challenge now is getting his players to simply focus on playing basketball. As frustrating as the last two games have been, the Celtics were rolling before that, sandwiching two five-game winning streaks around a competitive loss to the Golden State Warriors.
The Celtics need to get past their lingering issues and simply embrace the championship pursuit. This team is clearly capable of competing with the league’s elite, but Boston has put itself in a tough position by playing down to lesser competition and letting their issues fester this far into the season.
While Stevens and the Celtics have had minor issues in past seasons, this simply feels like a key moment for this year’s group. How the Celtics respond could dictate just how the rest of the season plays out. Stevens has to get his players to rally around the notion of just playing basketball and leaving all the other drama and distractions behind them.
Stevens has to help his team find the joy that Morris says has been fleeting this season.
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