Forsberg: Identifying four areas of concern for the Celtics before the playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
In a 48-hour span, the Boston Celtics coughed up the biggest lead in the NBA while losing to an overhauled (and star-less) Nets squad, fumbled away a 14-point lead and lost in double overtime to the surging Knicks, and watched their injury report crowd back up after emerging as healthy as they’ve been all year coming out of the All-Star break.
Despite enduring three losses in their last four outings and slipping 1.5 games behind the rival Bucks in the sprint for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla had an immediate answer when asked about the concern level for his team after Sunday’s loss.
“Zero,” said Mazzulla.
While we admire the phlegmatic approach, and a very Brad Stevens-like ability to stay even keel, it felt a little like the, “This is fine,” meme minus the flames around the interview podium.
While the true concern level is probably somewhere between Mazzulla’s zero and the hair-on-fire 10 that some Celtics fans feel in the immediate aftermath of recent losses, it seems undeniable that there are areas this team must tighten up.
Our hope would be that Mazzulla is a bit more firm with his variable-intensity players behind closed doors because, even if the coach truly believes this is just a regular-season rough patch, the proximity of the playoffs adds an urgency to getting things right .
Here’s what would headline our list of primary concerns about the Celtics with a month left on the regular-season calendar:
1. Where did the swagger go?
The Celtics started the season 21-5 and their offense was on a historic pace. But ever since that early December speed bump in a return to San Francisco, the Celtics have been good not great. Winning ugly helped mask a lot of their middling play, particularly on the offensive end.
The Celtics are 24-15 since December 10. That’s tied for the fifth most wins with the same Cavaliers team they visit on Monday night. A bit more concerning is that three East foes — the 76ers, Bucks, and Knicks — slot ahead of the Celtics in wins during that span.
Boston’s offensive rating over those 39 games is a meager 114.6, which is tied with the Lakers for 15th in the NBA over that span. We all knew that Boston’s torrid shooting probably wasn’t sustainable, but being a middle-of-the-road offense isn’t good enough to get the Celtics back to where they want to go. And there’s a half season of data suggesting that’s who they are.
Mazzulla continues to implore his team to embrace the 3-point shot. But this team is prone to some maddening lulls when those shots don’t fall. And a dip in transition defense lately has only accentuated the offensive woes.
Couple that with a defensive regression — more on that in a minute — and Boston just doesn’t look like the surefire title favorite that we saw through the first third of the season.
2. What is this team’s identity?
At the start of the season, it felt like Boston’s offensive onslaughts might create a shift in team identity. During last year’s Finals run, Boston was a defensive-minded squad that could always hang its hat on that side of the ball.
But not only has the offense slid to the middle of the pack, the defense has dipped worse in recent weeks. Boston ranks 22nd in defensive rating since the All-Star break while allowing 117.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s 6.7 points above their pre-All-Star output (which ranked fourth in the league).
There are stretches where the Celtics remind us what they can be on that end. It felt like Boston was tightening up its defense in the fourth quarter against the Knicks on Sunday night, only to allow Immanuel Quickley to (literally) dance his way to his favorite spots, while Julius Randle bullied his way to the front of the basket and the Knicks repeatedly hit big shots.
So what will be Boston’s calling card this time around? Are they going to get back to being a defensive-minded team, or live and die by the 3? The former is complicated because …
3. Injury report is filling up again
Robert Williams III limped off with hamstring tightness against the Nets and will miss 7-10 days. Al Horford won’t play the second night of four remaining back-to-backs. Marcus Smart got dinged up late against the Knicks. Malcolm Brogdon has missed two games due to an ankle injury. Boston should prioritize rest for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown near the finish line of the regular season.
All of which seems to suggest that Boston is unlikely to have its full rotation available much over the final 17 games. The starters got a few games together after the All-Star break but still weren’t playing anywhere near the level we saw late last season.
Maybe they can all just ratchet it up when the playoffs arrive. But so much hinges on the health of Williams III, who hasn’t consistently looked like himself for much of the season. There have certainly been instances where Williams III is flying around on both ends and is the game-changing defender that helped light Boston’s second-half fuse last season. But if he’s not his normal self, and Boston can’t get its core players back to defending at a level closer to last season, it’s going to put a lot of pressure on the offense to be great.
4. Mazzulla’s button pushing
One of Mazzulla’s strengths for much of the season was deploying the right personnel at the right time. Quibble about his timeout usage or his penchant for playing core players huge minutes but he had a solid feel for lineups.
Maybe we’re overreacting to Boston’s recent struggles, but his lineup decisions have been a little bit more suspect lately. Maybe that’s the pain point of being closer to full health and trying to integrate deadline acquisition Mike Muscala on the fly. Or maybe this is just our longwinded way of pleading for more Derrick White in key spots.
White has been spectacular — and impossibly durable — throughout the entire season. He carried the Celtics through much of February. And yet he’s rarely seen the floor when it matters most.
Boston has now played an absurd 10 overtime games this season. Here’s the minutes logged by key players:
Mind you, five of White’s 11.3 minutes came when the Celtics played without four starters in Milwaukee last month. So, in Boston’s nine other overtime games, White has played a mere 6.3 minutes. Half of those came while playing the final 3 minutes after Marcus Smart fouled out in double overtime on Sunday night.
When everyone is healthy we can understand it might be difficult to trot out three-guard lineups, and Mazzulla clearly likes having the defensive versatility of Smart and Brogdon when available. But Boston has played 143 total crunch-time minutes this season — score within five points in the final five minutes. How much of that time has White been on the floor? Less than a third.
Let’s look at crunch-time minutes logged by Celtics players:
You can make a real case that White has been Boston’s third most impactful player this season. Yet he’s rarely gotten off the bench in key spots. Of Boston’s 30 clutch games, he’s appeared in only 19.
More damning: Boston’s net rating in clutch situations with White on the court is +29.7. That’s the best on the team among the regular crunch-time players. To his credit, White hasn’t grumped about his lack of time.
Again, guard depth complicates matters. But, much like with Tatum, good things happen when White is on the court. It feels like the Celtics need to do a better job making sure he gets an opportunity in those situations.
Alas, even White couldn’t save the Celtics on Sunday night in double overtime.