(Photo courtesy of Celticsblog.com) “Forward Jayson Tatum and guard Jaylen Brown upset during game.”
After a very promising start, the Boston Celtics are starting to look a lot like the early 2021 Celtics team. At one point, the Celtics had the best record in basketball. Now, the team is barely holding on to the number two seed, with a 0.5-game lead over the Philadelphia 76ers.
After recent losses to the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz, there are serious concerns that need to be addressed. Boston is now 7-6 since the All-Star break.
To start, center Robert Williams III’s absence has hurt Boston’s rebounding and defense. Giving up second-chance points has been the deciding factor in a lot of their losses. Per Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston, Boston’s rebound rate leaps to a team-best 54.3 when Williams III is on the court, a 3.7 percent increase over the team’s season average. What should be noted is that Boston grabs 78.1 percent of all defensive rebounds with Williams III on the floor, which is 3.4 percentage points better than the season average.
Williams has been sidelined since March 5th with a hamstring strain. Williams is no stranger to missing time, as he missed the start of the season due to off-season knee surgery.
The Celtics need to re-establish the defensive identity they had last year. In 2021-22, Boston had the best defensive rating in the league, which proved to be instrumental in getting them to their first NBA Finals since 2010. Per StatMuse, Boston is fourth in defensive rating this season. This is not a huge drop-off, although they’ve dropped to 15th since the All-Star break.
DPOY point guard Marcus Smart and center Al Horford have not had the same impact on the defensive end this year. Smart recently admitted that his defense has not been the same. His perimeter defense has noticeably regressed, which was key for Boston last year. Horford may be regressing due to age, as teams don’t seem to be afraid of attacking him in the paint. Those two are going to need to step up come playoff time. Having a healthy Williams will pay dividends as well.
During this stretch, small forward Jayson Tatum has been in a slump. Although the 25-year-old superstar has had an MVP-caliber season, his current play hasn’t been reminiscent of that.
Since the break, Tatum’s numbers have plummeted as he’s averaging just 26.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 5.6 assists. While those numbers may not seem bad on the surface, his field goal percentage has dropped to 42.3 percent and his 3-point percentage has dropped to 29.2 percent. Tatum needs to drive to the rim more often, instead of settling for contested jump shots. If he can find a consistent balance in his shot selection, his efficiency will likely improve.
One of the main reasons why Tatum was a serious MVP candidate was because of his willingness to attack the rim, along with efficient shot selection. For a team that has championship expectations, Tatum will need to regain that rhythm.
Blame can be thrown around toward the players, but Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla deserves a piece of the pie. Much of Boston’s struggles are because of Mazzulla’s inability to make in-game adjustments.
Boston seems too dependent on shooting threes. The “live by the 3, die by the 3” mantra simply won’t cut it. Per StatMuse, Boston is 2nd in three-point attempts at 42.3 threes per game. The Celtics are surrounded by good 3-point shooters everywhere, like Jayson Tatum, shooting guard Jaylen Brown, point guard Malcolm Brogdon, point guard Derrick White, Al Horford, power forward Grant Williams, small forward Sam Hauser and center Mike Muscala. However, there will be lousy shooting nights and the team needs to find a way to balance the offense, especially in late-game situations.
Mazzulla needs to adjust the lineup such as considering to bring Smart off the bench. As mentioned before, Smart’s defense has regressed, and he’s been a liability on offense. Per StatMuse, Boston has the most blown leads out of every team in the league. Much of that has to do with Smart’s inefficient scoring, costly turnovers and poor shot selection. With the abundance of guard depth that Boston has, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon are simply better options offensively. Especially in late-game situations, both are better candidates to replace Smart in the closing lineup.
Speaking of late-game situations, Jaylen Brown should get more scoring opportunities as he’s been Boston’s most consistent scorer since the All-Star break. If Tatum is struggling, Brown should be trusted to take big shots.
The Celtics have some problems to figure out as they look to get out of their slump. They aim to regain the number one seed and make a deep run in the postseason.