The Boston Celtics are broken, but not beyond repair.
Coming off an offseason that supposedly saw them improve, visions of the Larry O'Brien Trophy danced through Boston's collective head and even tattooed themselves onto Jason Terry's arm.
As we begin to near the halfway point of the NBA's regular season, though, those championship aspirations seem to have now waltzed their way out of sight, out of mind and into the trash.
But let's not throw that trash out just yet, because the Celtics are still a salvageable entity.
Understandably, hovering around .500 and clinging to the final Eastern Conference playoff spot is unacceptable. Boston has $76 million worth of payroll invested in this roster, a financial commitment that renders these displays of mediocrity completely unacceptable.
Yet that's exactly what the Celtics have been thus far: mediocre. This team lacks a collective purpose, one that unites it, separates it from the rest and ultimately secures its resurrection.
And that elusive identity I am referring to is defense.
Last season, the Celtics allowed just 98.2 points per 100 possessions, making them the most efficient team in the NBA. They held opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 45.2 (second in the league) and 14.9 percent of their defensive sets culminated in a forced turnover (fourth-best in the league).
That same defensive intensity and subsequent execution—the one that nearly carried them to the NBA Finals—is nowhere to be found this year.
Currently, Boston's opponents are scoring at a rate of 103.9 points per 100 possessions (10th in the league) while also posting an effective field-goal percentage of 49.2 (18th in the league).
As I've stated many times before, such realities would not necessarily be cause for panic—for teams that aren't the Celtics.
Boston has been synonymous with strong defense for years. It wasn't the Celtics' 25th-ranked offense that carried them deep into the playoffs last year, after all. And it's not going be their current 22nd-ranked offense that turns the season around for them this year.
No, redemption must come on the heels of their defense.
The same defense that baffled the Miami Heat's offense all season long last year. The same defense that propelled the Celtics to second-half dominance but a campaign ago.
The same defense that this team is still capable of playing.
It takes but a cursory glance at Boston's in-game defensive sets to see that rotations are being blown, the team is switching far too much off screens and players aren't always getting back on defense.
But it takes an even quicker gander to see that a semblance of last year's defense still exists.
Despite struggles to get back on defense, the Celtics are allowing just 12.1 fast-break points per game, sixth-best in the league. Even their perimeter defense is allowing just 20.4 points off three-pointers a night, putting them in the top half of the league.
Look closer and you'll see the Celtics are relinquishing 42.6 points in the paint per bout, seventh-most in the league. We all know they're size-challenged, but despite being the worst rebounding team in the league last season, they still managed sustain a top-10 interior defense.
This stuff comes down to cosmetic adjustments and heightened effort, not plausibility.
Providing more efficient help defense in the paint is a must. Perpetual rotations on that help defense is a necessity. And fighting over screens is a habit.
We know the Celtics can defend in spite of their size. We know they can win in spite of their offense.
But we also know that only holds true because of their defense. The same defense that has eluded them all season long.
The same defense that will prove to be the difference between a postseason berth and a Celtics team in shambles.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of December 27, 2012.
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