What will the Boston Celtics' calling card be during the 2020-21 season?
“If we’re good?” coach Brad Stevens said a short while before the new campaign tipped. "Then we have to defend like we’ve defended. I think of the things about last year’s team was they really embraced the defensive end of the floor.”
Boston finished fourth in defensive rating last season, its third straight season in the top 6. Defense has become a signature trait of nearly every Stevens team that has enjoyed success.
Which is why it’s jarring to look up and see the Celtics rank 21st in defensive rating a month into the new season. Sure, this is a weird year and availability hasn’t exactly positioned the Celtics for success. But this is a jarring outlier among Stevens’ teams, even those that were a perpetual revolving door of talent early in his Boston tenure.
Celtics defensive rating under Brad Stevens:
It’s impossible to ignore this team’s inability to generate stops when they needed them most during their recent double-dip in Philadelphia. This after getting absolutely gouged by a Knicks team that ranks 26th in the NBA in offensive rating to start the current three-game losing streak.
Stevens admitted he was disappointed with his team’s play in key crunch-time possessions in the fourth quarter of Friday’s loss to the Sixers. Boston let Ben Simmons, typically reluctant to step into the fourth-quarter spotlight, dominate for about a 90-second stretch after pulling within 3 and the game was over.
“We just have to be better,” said Stevens. "We have to be more detail-oriented, everything has to be crisper, everything has to be tighter, everything has to be done to perfection, even more so when the other team is locked in.
"Too haphazard, in my opinion. Hey, we had guys out, they've got a really good team, they're really physical. They hurt us with physicality in both games this week, but whenever you step between the lines and you've got a chance to win, control what you can control or at least, you know, win or lose, we get over the hump or not in this game is not the point. The point is, we have to do our jobs better.”
It starts on the defensive end. Sure, getting Jayson Tatum back will cure a lot of what has ailed this team lately — though Tatum will likely be eased back in after missing two weeks. Kemba Walker sounds eager to shed his minutes restriction and he’s crawling closer to his normal output.
But a Celtics team that will reach the quarter pole of the 2020-21 season next week still has no identity. They’ve got too much talent not to be above average on that end of the floor. But they’ve really got to figure out how to become an elite-caliber defense, especially with all the offensive firepower in the Eastern Conference.
What we’ve seen so far is not a typical Brad Stevens team.
That’s why, fresh off a 42-point night, Jaylen Brown could only focus on what’s been missing on the defensive end.
"I think our identity has always been, as a Celtics team, we hang our hat on the defensive side of the ball and we haven’t been good enough this year,” said Brown. "We gotta be better and a lot of that is on me. I gotta be better. I gotta lead these guys, defensively, along with Smart and we’ve gotta get after teams. Just gotta be better.”
Joel Embiid and the new weapons the Sixers have put around him are going to stress any defense. But the Celtics gave up an absurd 42 points in the third quarter on Friday night. Even after making a late charge and pulling within a possession after being down 12, Boston seemingly had little left in the tank and the Sixers pounced with Simmons simply taking over with multiple aggressive drives at the basket.
Tristan Thompson hasn’t been the backline anchor capable of jousting with the East elite like Boston hoped. Maybe that will come with time and continuity. But right now Boston is offering little resistance whether that’s opposing guard penetrating at will or bigs picking up fouls around the basket.
The Celtics showed glimpses of being able to dig in, defensively, in crunch-time moments early in the season. It helped them start the season 5-2 in crunch-time games. But they were not able to tighten up late against the Sixers, a playoff-caliber opponent. And that’s concerning.
"I think we could be better, for sure,” said Walker. "We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got some work to do. We just have to be better at executing, sharing the basketball, making the right play, being in the right positions. We’re just not doing it consistently. That’s what’s hurting us.
Echoed Brown: "We just have to get that tenacity back. We’ve had it. This team is capable of it and we’ve had it at times. I don’t think it’s a lack of [it]. We have that mentality. There’s been ups and downs this season, different protocols, but we can’t let that be a excuse. We had it in bits and pieces during this game and we still came up short. But we have to follow Smart’s lead, and I have to do a better job on that side of the ball, really impacting the defensive side like I know I can.”