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Celtics lead league at break, but need to step up their game to snag 18th banner

Jimmy Myers
Celtics lead league at break, but need to step up their game to snag 18th banner
Small forward Jaylen Brown of the Celtics takes a shot in traffic. PHOTO: KEITH ALLISON

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Following their 50-point blowout victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Valentine’s Day, the Boston Celtics headed into this year’s NBA all-star weekend sporting a 43-12 record, the best in the league.

While many fans are giddy about raising championship banner number 18 by season’s end, I take a more realistic view of this current edition of the Green.

Looking deeper into their overall team performance, I would award grades ranging from B- to B+.

Defense

Defense has always been the critical ingredient to championship success from the halcyon days of the Bill Russell-led Celtics teams (1956-1969), that locked up opponents on defense, leading to their vaunted fast-break attack. This combination produced 11 NBA titles over Russell’s scintillating 13-year career in Boston.

The current Celtics team plays defense in spurts and needs to be better. Coming into this season, the team advertised a more substantial commitment to the defensive end of the floor. With the addition of all-star caliber guard Jrue Holiday and forward-center Krystaps Porzingis, this team could be good enough to go all the way. But I have reservations.

Start with the defensive work of the backcourt. Derrick White, Holiday, and Jaylen Brown (when he is in the backcourt) are solid but not spectacular. They have struggled with the high-powered backcourts of the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic in Eastern Conference play.

And they have had real trouble with the defending champion Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder — the top backcourts in the Western Conference.

The Celtics’ Jason Tatum dribbles the ball up the court. PHOTO: ALL PRO REELS

In assessing the frontcourt, Jason Tatum’s defensive play should be better. I say this because Tatum mentioned wanting to make the all-NBA defensive first team during preseason camp. He has yet to live up to those standards.

Porzingis has had some good moments, but not enough to label him a top defensive stopper. And with his history of injuries, the Celtics faithful have to hold their breath every time he goes up in the air to block a shot. Porzingis’ overall health will be one of the key factors for this team and its chances to advance deep into this year’s NBA playoffs.

Meanwhile, steady Al Horford is a key to the entire frontcourt picture. He must continue his vital work if the team is to succeed against the top title contenders.

Brown is the Celtics’ top overall defender, matching up with the best scoring guard or forward from the opposing team. That is not to take anything away from Holiday and White, who like Brown, successfully defend multiple positions on the floor.

Team defense is a problem at times with different groupings on the floor. The Celtics still give up too much penetration, especially to elite NBA guards, causing breakdowns on the back line of the defense. This problem was evident in losses to the Pacers, Timberwolves, Nuggets and Clippers.

We are not counting embarrassing losses to the Bucks (135-102 on Jan. 11, after a challenging game against the Timberwolves the night before and a late-night flight to Milwaukee) and the Lakers (minus all-stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis on Feb. 1). Lakers guards Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell torched (and tortured) the Celtics throughout the contest.

Horrible losses to the Hornets (in Charlotte on Nov. 20 following a nail-biting 102-100 win the night before against the Grizzlies in Memphis) and the Magic (113-96 in Orlando on Nov. 24) can be written off as bad nights. Still, these performances must be noticed when a team considers itself a genuine title contender.

Offense

This Celtics team lives, and far too often, dies, on their offensive play — especially with the reliance on the three-point shot. When the treys are falling, the offense seems invincible. When they aren’t, the squad’s confidence level and defensive intensity dips — sometimes badly. There is also too much isolation basketball and not enough movement off the ball.

PHOTO: PAUL KELEHER

Tatum and Brown dribbling five or more times per game to complete one-on-one moves from the top of the key slows down the offense.

This team should have taken a lesson from the NBA finals loss to the Golden State Warriors two years ago. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors destroyed the Celtics with ball movement and body movement off the ball, cutting and screening to get players open for good shots.

Excellent team basketball involves every one of the five players on the floor being involved, not one-on-one forays to the hoop. Without a change in the offensive philosophy, the Celtics will have a tough time advancing deep in the upcoming playoffs.

Coaching

Coaching is another defining element of this equation. Head coach Joe Mazzulla and his staff have done a decent job. Mazzulla, the youngest coach in the NBA, still seems lost at times in close games, with a special mention of the team’s lack of execution in final-second situations. There is still the question as to whether this young team listens and follows the instructions of a coach who is only a few years older than the core of its young talent. Sam Cassell’s voice should help them during these challenging times.

Remaining Season

Even with the additions of Xavier Tillman and Jaden Springer to the current roster, the Celtics know that their road to NBA title 18 will be tough and challenging.

The remaining 27 games on the Celtics schedule feature marquee matchups with the Knicks, Mavericks, Warriors, Cavaliers (at Cleveland), Nuggets (at Denver), a home-and-away series with the Phoenix Suns, and a home contest with the Milwaukee Bucks (March 20).

A solid B to A performance will be needed for the Celtics to consider themselves legitimate NBA championship contenders during the remainder of the season.

basketball, Boston Celtics, Derrick White, Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday, Krystaps Porzingis, NBA, Sports