There are no easy answers for this Celtics team right now. They have been a sub .500 team (11-12) since February 1st, the very day Kyrie Irving raised the level of uncertainty about his future with the "Ask me July 1st," response when asked about his pending free agency before a game with the Knicks.
Since that date, in a likely unrelated development to Irving's comments, the Celtics' defense has plummeted. They were the second-best defense in the NBA for the first four months of the season, allowing a minuscule 102 points per 100 possessions. Since then? The bottom has fallen out of this group on that end of the floor, with the defense allowing 110.3 points per 100 possessions, the 20th-worst mark in the NBA.
Amid four straight losses over the past week (with various injuries factored in), the only consistent part of Boston's game for the last few weeks has been subpar defense.
"I don’t want to be a team – and I’ve never been a part of a team – that was solely reliant on whether you make shots or not. And right now, in the last month, that’s our deal," Brad Stevens said. "Like, we’re just relying on whether we make shots. Instead of being a buckle-down, get stops, find a way to win. Nothing better than winning when you’re 5 for 35 or 7 for 35 from three. That means you’ve figured out what’s important and you’re going to play to that every night.”
It's fair for Stevens to have that mentality, but his lineup choices for the majority of the season have signaled that he wants to be an offense-team first as he has stayed small almost all year in the frontcourt. The Celtics had one of the best defenses in the NBA last year largely based on the front line of Aron Baynes and Al Horford and that duo has played just 80 minutes together this year. Some of that has been due to injury but Stevens has avoided turning to it more on many occasions. Incredibly, Horford has played just four percent of his time at power forward this year, a 39 percent dropoff from last season.
Using Horford as a power forward alongside one of Baynes, Daniel Theis or even Robert Williams in longer doses every game, especially against traditional front lines, is a tactic that is worth experimenting with. The Celtics are going to see many big front lines in the playoffs with Indy, Milwaukee and/or Toronto so they might as well start preparing for them now.
The other way seemingly obvious way to get back on track defensively is to go with guys that can be trusted on the defensive end of the floor. Some players on this team are strong enough on offense to overcome their defensive shortcomings, or at least justify them (Kyrie Irving). Lately, that has not been the case for Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum in stretches. Both of them struggle with defending on the perimeter, communication in switches and overall awareness and those issues have been exploited by opponents over the past couple of months.
We know both can be a part of a successful defense (they showed that earlier this year and last year), but pairing them together against the opponent's best talent in the starting five has been a recipe for ugly runs in recent weeks. Stevens needs to shake things up his rotation for the first time since November and if he wants to take on a more defensive identity with the starting five, there are a few good options for him in
Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and a wildcard option for Semi Ojeleye (likely off the bench for him).
Hayward and Brown have been two of the C's best players for the last two months now and both have their strengths. Hayward is the smarter defender, making fewer mistakes and getting to the right spot. The Celtics defense is significantly better when he is on the floor, something that can be said about very few rotation wing players on this roster right now. The main drawback right now with him is his athletic limitations in the wake of his ankle injury, but that's something that has improved over the course of the year. If he shares the floor with Smart, he won't have to take on the toughest scorer and can instead be trusted to limit secondary options. Those are areas that the Morris and Tatum have failed at lately.
Brown's shown plenty of promise as well while defending individual scorers but his lapses off the ball and in help situations have to be somewhat worrisome for Stevens. His athleticism makes him a huge asset though, although staggering him with Smart might be a smarter play when it comes to defending tough backcourt scorers.
The truth? There is no one right answer to Boston's defensive woes. If they go small up front and replace Morris with Hayward or Brown, they are poised to get crushed on the glass against certain opponents. If they go big with Baynes and Horford, they will be vulnerable in defending the 3. Every game poises its own set of challenges and this group has shown its vulnerable no matter who they face with the current group.
Switching these up now with a focus on prepping the best possible matchups for the Pacers seems like a priority. With a pair of crafty scorers on the wing in Wesley Matthews and Bojan Bogdanovic, that's a bad matchup for Tatum or Morris. Moving Hayward into the fold now is worth trying, perhaps in place of Morris, in order to get some familiarity in place. With Horford and Tatum poised to return tonight against the Cavs, it's a good opportunity for change. With time running out for Stevens, his work begins Tuesday night in hopes of finding the groupings that get this defense clicking once again.
If Stevens wants to be a team capable of getting stops, he needs to start playing the guys that are willing to grind more to get them.