Celtics

Robb: A familiar problem has re-emerged amid the Celtics losing streak

(Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Losing to the Eastern Conference’s best team so far (Sixers are 11-5) without Jayson Tatum was no surprise for the Boston Celtics on Friday night. This revamped Sixers roster is making the most of its parts under new head coach Doc Rivers, providing the East with another heavyweight team to take seriously come playoff time.

However, despite the Celtics hanging tough in this contest for the better part of the opening 43 minutes, Brad Stevens was in no mood for moral victories after the C’s third straight defeat.

“I think every time you take the floor, no matter who’s available if you’re a good team that you have a chance and give yourselves a chance no matter who’s available, who’s not available,” Stevens said. “I’m disappointed in the way that we played in multiple big possessions in the fourth quarter.”

A tight 103-100 game with just over five minutes remaining in regulation quickly turned into a runaway win for the Sixers as Boston’s defense crumbled amid a 14-2 Philly run over the next three minutes. It was a similar storyline from last year’s postseason in which Boston’s defense couldn’t muster a stop when it counted and went cold offensively, thwarting any chances of pulling off an undermanned win despite Jaylen Brown’s career-high 42 points.

The lackluster defense we saw during that run has been par for the course for this Celtics team all year long (21st in defensive efficiency) as new additions have underwhelmed on that end (Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague) and familiar reliable faces haven’t locked in much either. The end result has been a mediocre record through the opening 20 percent of the season despite a strong start.

“We just have to be better,” Stevens declared after watching the C’s fall to 8-6. “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 the physicality in both games this week. But whenever you step between the lines then you’ve got a chance to win if you can control what you can control. Win or lose, if we get over the hump or not in this game is not the point. The point is we have to do our jobs better.”

Defensively, everyone has to do their job better across the entire roster so no one escapes blame from that standpoint. From Thompson to Smart, everyone made defensive mistakes during crunch time, resulting in a Sixers knockout punch. A full roster, more familiarity and greater focus will help solve some of those issues but just how much all of that helps remains to be seen.

While the defensive issues are a new development for any Brad Stevens team, a familiar issue is also beginning to bubble to the surface as well. Part of it is due to circumstance (Tatum being out, Walker working his way back) but the end result is the same. The Celtics aren’t winning many games when Marcus Smart treats himself like a top scoring option.

One look at Smart’s scoring line from Friday night doesn’t leave much to complain about on the surface from his night. 20 points on 7-of-17 FG and a team-high 7 assists in 39 minutes. That’s a very good night for Marcus Smart and therein lies the problem.

40 percent shooting for Smart is above-average. (He’s a 37 percent career shooter). 40 percent shooting for a high volume scorer is not a good thing for any team and that’s what Smart has been far too much this season.

We first looked at Smart's shot volume numbers during last postseason and the splits were striking even back then.

2019-20

Celtics when Smart takes 13 or more shots: 8-12 (2-4 in postseason)

Celtics when Smart takes fewer than 12 shots: 31-9

The early returns in 2020-21 are even worse when Smart becomes a focal point of the offense despite his offseason