The Celtics’ scrambling was admirable, if not exactly effective, as they dashed around the court trying to match up with Mavericks players on defense. They were getting picked apart in a performance reminiscent of Tiago Splitter‘s breakout game at TD Garden earlier this season, but at least they were making a good show of it.
Then Vince Carter hopped in the Way Back Machine — which apparently takes the form of a Harley Davidson for the 15th-year veteran — with a vicious dunk that made a mockery of the Celtics’ futile defense.
Carter’s slam stretched Dallas’ lead back to double-digits, where it had stood for most of the night, but what made the play so devastating for the Celtics was the part that came before the highlight-reel dunk. The comedy of errors included Jeff Green and Avery Bradley literally bumping into each other, Brandon Bass inexplicably hanging out near the 3-point line with sub-30 percent shooter Shawn Marion instead of rotating to help and Chris Wilcox getting hung out to dry in the middle of the paint.
The Celtics’ pick-and-roll defense throughout the game was so dreadful, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle seemed to call nothing else but pick and rolls for most of the second quarter and the early part of the third. This loss therefore was double damaging for Boston. Every future opponent should scour the film from this game for hints after Carlisle made Boston look helpless against that staple of every team’s playbook.
The breakdowns were so glaring, a mostly upbeat Doc Rivers finished his overall upbeat assessment of the loss by admitting that while the Mavs played well offensively, his team helped them do so.
“I wasn’t real happy with our defense,” Rivers said. “We’re going to have to clean that up.”
Aside from Carter’s rim-rocker, nobody captured the Celtics’ struggles like Brandan Wright. The 25-year-old center, playing with his third NBA team, scored a game-high 23 points (two points shy of his career high set four years ago) by doing little more than diving to the rim on pick-and-roll plays. Nobody other than Kevin Garnett was prepared to contain the play, and that includes Bradley, the so-called “best perimeter defender in the NBA.”
As usual, Bradley’s ball pressure gave Dallas trouble at times, but the third-year guard was out of sync with the big men on defense and had difficulty staying in front of his man. Bradley hustled and hounded the Mavs’ ballhandlers, which might impress novice fans who mistake frantic energy for good defense. But he seemed uncertain of how to approach Dallas’ unconventional setup, which Paul Pierce summed up well.
“The way the Mavericks play, they’re really unorthodox as far as their lineup, especially when you have a power forward like Dirk Nowitzki who can shoot 3-pointers,” Pierce said. “It put the guards in a position where they really had to help on the ‘roll’ guy. That’s not the thing we do normally, because the bigs usually run with the bigs. They do a real good job of spreading you out on the pick and roll and finding the extra guy. We just sometimes rotated and sometimes we didn’t. Those inconsistencies led to why they scored so much.”
Whereas frontcourt defenders typically get the blame for points in the paint — the Mavs had 44 of them — the guards and wing players were the ones most at fault on Friday. Jason Terry, making his first trip back to the city where he played the last eight years, acknowledged that the little guys hung the big guys out to dry.
“We’re supposed to be pulled in and helping more than we were,” Terry said. “We were glued to our men, similar to what we were doing earlier in the season, and that can’t happen.”
Those two collapsing losses to Miami and New Orleans earlier in the week now sting a bit more for the Celtics. They do not get much time to regroup, because Mike Conley and the Memphis Grizzlies stand ready to possibly pick-and-roll them to death on Saturday. To make matters more interesting, the Celtics still need to learn the final word on Courtney Lee, who left late in the action after twisting his ankle.
Through all the flaws, the Celtics played hard and knew when they messed up. Those things are givens, though, particularly at this time of year — even players on No. 15 seeds in the NCAA Tournament can run around like chickens with their heads cut off and hang their heads when they give up a layup. The Celtics need more than effort. They need to shore up their defense, before their One Shining Moment becomes a victory over Miami two months ago that hardly anyone remembers anymore.