BOSTON — The moments following a Game 7 loss at TD Garden could have been reserved for reactionary reflection, but the Celtics seemed to nail exactly what went wrong in another season that ended without a title.
In the minutes following their loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics took time to carefully identify their biggest issues over the course of the season. There was obviously plenty of talk about individual improvements that needed to be made, whether it be from head coach Joe Mazzulla or one of the many players who failed to show up for the biggest game of the season. But Boston seemed to come to a consensus when pointing to the team’s biggest issue.
It was the defense.
Though they ranked favorably on that end, finishing top 10 in nearly every category in the regular season, the drop off from being the NBA’s top defense in 2022 was clear. It was even evident from an outsider’s perspective, as Malcolm Brogdon identified it as the Celtics’ biggest problem shortly after wrapping his first season in Boston.
“It was the issue,” Brogdon said postgame. “This was a team last year that prided themselves on defense, defense was their calling card. This year, offense was our calling card, and I don’t think you win championships with a better offense than a defense. I think pretty much we were the best offensive team in the league, for sure. You talk about depth, you talk about the ways we scored, our versatility on offense one through seven, one through eight.
“Defensively, I thought we had the versatility. I thought we had the talent, but on any given night we just seemed to let go of the rope and have lots of breakdowns.”
There isn’t a single player on the Celtics roster who would know more about the Celtics’ change in defensive identity than Marcus Smart who went from Defensive Player of the Year in 2022 to an average defender. He struggled to hold the same versatility on that end that made him such a force. His plan for improvement? Attention to details.
“We just got to continue to put defense first,” Smart said. “We were so bad on offense last year that it was our main focus this year. Unfortunately, our defense took a hit from that. We picked it back up but things happen, with guys inserted into the lineup, taken back out, guys getting hurt. … The defense is key, because a lot of times you can miss shots but the defense can save you a lot of the time. A lot of times defense has been our kryptonite when we’re not making shots. … We just need to be better because we can always control that.”
Boston improved greatly on that end to close out the series, holding Miami to an average of 100.5 point per game in the four-game stretch that finished their season. It came too late, however, as the Heat averaged over 120 points per game in building their 3-0 lead. The Celtics obviously have other issues to worry about, as the offensive plan doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon, but getting back their defensive identity will be paramount in any attempt at getting over the hump.