What's Ailing the Aging Boston Celtics?
Much focus has been on whether Rajon Rondo was wrong to hunt for his assist streak during a blowout. I'm more focused on why the blowout was even happening against a Detroit team that's looked somewhere between "lifeless" and "incompetent" this season.
The Celtics are notorious players of NBA regular-season possum. It is difficult to know whether their occasional midseason struggles are indicative of real concern or simply the result of a team pacing itself on an 82-game schedule.
I'll split the difference. Some Celtics trends are discouraging, but they come with the caveat that Boston might turn it on when needed. I emphasize the "might" here, because there's some revisionist history to last year's Boston playoff run.
Last season is seen as a success because the Celtics were a win away from making the finals. But, with proper context, Boston faced a mostly Horford-less Atlanta, a No. 8-seeded Sixers team (probably due to Derrick Rose's injury) and a mostly Bosh-less Miami team.
Credit to Boston for almost outplaying every team it faced, but this was an atypical playoff path. If you're counting on such fortune in future years, it's asking for a lot.
The Celtics perhaps felt the same way, because they retooled over the offseason. Out with Ray Allen, in with Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa, Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger. What you'll notice about all of these names is, with the exception of Lee, these guys are defensive liabilities.
Ray Allen wasn't exactly a defensive stopper, but he also wasn't funneling his man into the likes of Sullinger and Green. Jared is slow and raw as a rookie. Green can play capable D against small forwards, but gets crushed by bigger players.
Defensive ace Kevin Garnett has been asked to compensate for all these leaking holes, and it might be a bit too much to ask of the 36-year-old center. The Celtics are typically one of the NBA's best defenses, but they've started off the season No. 22 on defense according to Basketball Reference.
Paul Pierce has also appeared, to the untrained eye, out of shape. He's been a step slower than usual, which could be the effects of age or the effects of an especially fun offseason. Pierce is an underrated defender, and he's absolutely crucial to Boston's strategy. If Boston is relying on Jeff Green to give Pierce-level help against elite scoring wings, I fear for it.
There is hope on the horizon. When Avery Bradley comes back, he'll be able to lend his brand of ball-pressure defense above the circle. That should improve matters somewhat. Boston also could stand to get better at offense in the meantime, as it has rebuilt its roster with versatile guards.
It's early, and Boston has plenty of time to fix this. But it should be remembered: Due to age, Boston's margin of error gets slimmer by the year.
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