“The Celtics’ identity has faded all year”
“It’s a failed or failed league. So our defense must be our calling card.”
There is no shortage of factors that led to the Celtics’ 0-3 series deficit against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But for guard Malcolm Brogdon, Boston’s lack of defensive courage has loomed large in a series where the Heat have gone from a miserly scoring unit to an offensive juggernaut.
“We haven’t always been great defensively all year and that was the identity of the team last year,” Brogdon said Monday. “I think that got away from us. We’ve had breakouts where we’ve been great defensively, but not consistently.
“And honestly, we’ve struggled in every series that we’ve played. So now we’re up against a team that’s playing like they’re the best team in the league, and they’re just incredibly disciplined, incredibly consistent. And I think we’ve struggled with teams that are consistent possession by possession every night.
In some ways, the Celtics found themselves mired in an identity crisis at the worst possible time.
In last year’s run to the NBA Finals, Ime Udoka preached a team-wide buy-in on defense, with Boston relying on timely saves to both stifle opposing runs and boost the attack at the other end of the pitch.
Even though most of those supporting players returned in 2022-23, Joe Mazzula upped Boston’s approach by turning the Celtics into a unit that lives and dies by 3-point shooting.
With Boston’s offensive intentions centered on driving into the paint and kicking for an open shooter, the Celtics torched several teams in the regular season.
Boston ranked second to Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in 3-point attempts per game (42.6) during the regular season. The Celtics set a new franchise record for most threes made (1,315) and posted the third-highest offensive rating in league history (118.0).
But a team so reliant on long-range shots is also susceptible to many regressions and variances.
And against Miami, Boston’s bread and butter of success all but disappeared.
In three games against the Heat, the Celtics are shooting just 29.2 percent on 3-point attempts. Jaylen Brown and Al Horford are a combined 5-for-33 this series on 3-point chances, while Jayson Tatum went 1-for-7 from deep on Sunday.
Meanwhile, a Heat team that ranked 27th in the NBA in the regular season in 3-point percentage (34.4%) has connected 47.8% of its 3-pointers over the past three games.
With Boston unable to punish Miami for rolling out a paint-locking 2-3 zone, it was a recipe for disaster for Mazzulla’s roster.
“I think we’re a team that all year has relied on shooting, and when we’re not shooting – our defense goes down, it slips,” Brogdon said. “And that’s something we talked about. It’s something we tried to work on. And that’s something we’ve been acutely aware of [of]but it continues to be a problem for us.
Of course, Miami was helped by an absurd shot chance. But Brogdon thinks Miami’s dominance over Boston through three games falls under the overall theme of team identity. While the Celtics struggle to figure out which team they should be on, Miami has rarely bothered with its tried and tested game plan.
“I think it’s the teams that have a strong identity,” Brogdon said of what troubled Boston. “I think Miami is one of the teams, one of the few teams in the league – Miami, Denver, there are only a few that have a very strong identity and they play with it every night . They are super committed to it.
“For us, our identity has blurred throughout the year. We’ve tried to figure out who we are because I think we’re such a great and talented goalscoring team. But when we’re not making shots , we have to rely on our defense – and our defense is not consistent every night, so against a very consistent and disciplined team, we struggle.
With just one game separating the Celtics from a four-game sweep and painful summer of regrets, Brogdon thinks the choice of identity is clear.
“I think defense should be identity. I think when you get to the end of the playoffs, the Eastern Conference Finals, the [NBA] Finals – it’s the best defensive teams that are going to take that step forward and win a series,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ve seen that.
“The shots will not fall every night. It’s just the reality of the league. It’s a failed or caught up league. Our defense must therefore be our business card.
It’s a change of season economy that’s easier said than done.
After all, the Celtics have spent the last seven months and more than 90 games uprooting the foundations laid during this successful 2021-22 campaign.
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