Following a demoralizing Game 3 defeat in the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat on Sunday night, the Celtics could wander the streets of Miami hanging up fliers on telephone poles.
That’s because the Celtics are in search of their missing defensive identity.
It was the backbone to Boston’s run to an NBA Finals a year ago, but with the Celtics hoping to make a return trip, their defense has been nowhere to be found on the conference finals stage against the Heat.
“I think some of that defensive identity has been lost, and we have to get that back,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla told reporters, as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “Part of that is on me to get that back.”
Mazzulla added: “(Saw it) just these last couple games. I think the execution. We’re not connected. Usually at our best, we’re connected, we’re together, we’re physical on the defensive end and we don’t have that right now.”
Al Horford could only agree with his coach, especially after what transpired in Game 3. The Celtics provided no resistance to the Heat, who torched Boston’s defense seemingly every trip down the court. Miami finished shooting 56.8% from the floor and knocked down an eye-popping 19-of-35 (54.3%) 3-pointers in the 128-102 victory at Kaseya Center.
“As far as the defense goes, for whatever reason, we have lost it,” Horford told reporters, as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “We’re not doing as good of a job as we can.”
The Jimmy Butler show didn’t roll on for Miami in Game 3. Instead, Gabe Vincent lit the Celtics up for a playoff career-high 29 points. Duncan Robinson, who was in and out of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation this season, chipped in with 22 points and Caleb Martin netted 18.
After their offense stalled out in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors, it’s evident the Celtics prioritized their offense over their defense. Even when defensive lapses occurred regularly throughout the season, Mazzulla pointed to the offense first and not sinking enough shots.
The identity of the Celtics has changed, and not for the better.
“Our defense hasn’t been especially what it was last year,” Jaylen Brown told reporters, as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “But we’ve had tremendous strides in different directions. We’ve been able to find ways to win basketball games. … Yeah, we struggled to get stops, but to their credit, they’re playing well above their means. They’re ballin’ right now and I got to give them respect. Gabe Vincent, Martin, (Max) Strus, Duncan Robinson, guys that we should be able to keep under control are playing their (expletive) off.”
Here are more notes from Celtics-Heat Game 4:
— Brown and Jayson Tatum aren’t living up to the billing as All-NBA players in this series. They combined for just 26 points Sunday and shot just 1-for-14 from beyond the arc with Brown missing all seven of his 3-point attempts.
“I didn’t shoot the ball well at all tonight,” Tatum told reporters as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “We got some open looks coming off the pick-and-roll, getting doubled. … We just didn’t shoot the ball well at all. We couldn’t hit anything. Give them credit, they’re a really good defensive team. They play hard, they communicate. We had a lot of open looks tonight that we normally make.”
— The Celtics have the look of a disjointed team on both ends of the floor and Mazzulla did nothing to dissuade that notion after the lopsided defeat. Mazzulla, who shouldered blame for how his team performed, confirmed a disconnect between him and his players during the series.
— Derrick White got the start over Robert Williams in the pivotal contest with Mazzulla backing away from the double-big lineup. But White didn’t make much of an impact, tallying nine points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 26 minutes. His best contribution came from hitting 3-of-6 3-pointers.
— Despite giving off vibes that they are a beaten-down bunch, the Celtics tried to show some confidence despite no team in the history of the NBA ever overcoming a 3-0 series deficit.
“This is part of our journey right now and right now we’re in a low, low,” Horford said. “And rightfully so we’re being counted out because we haven’t been able to respond. But we’re not out yet. It is 3-0. I know what it looks like. I think I saw the other day, (teams are) 0-149 or something like that (in this position). But we’re not out yet. We’re still kicking. One of four teams that are still kicking.”
— The Miami Heat will bring their brooms to Kaseya Center on Tuesday night looking to sweep the Celtics and advance to the NBA Finals. Tipoff for Game 4 is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET.