In a quick-start NBA season littered with misfortune and literally a once-in-a-century reason for landing on the injury report, the Celtics have suffered more than most. Injuries, postponed games and a positive COVID-19 test for one of the league’s top players have made for a chaotic situation in Beantown and a disappointing 10-8 record mere months after reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Saturday night, while hosting their archrivals and defending champion Lakers, the Celts suffered another setback.
Up three with 10:30 remaining in the fourth, Marcus Smart, the Celtics veteran shooting guard known for his defensive tenacity and ability to check multiple positions, was forced to leave the game after falling to the floor in agony contesting a rebound.
Because Smart’s injury was not the result of contact, Twitter immediately feared the worst:
Though the Celtics would go on to lose the game following Smart’s departure, 96-95, the organization got some relatively good news Sunday afternoon when an MRI revealed Smart had only suffered a Grade 1 calf strain. He is expected to miss 2-3 weeks—a far cry from the laborious recovery cycle for an Achilles—but still a tough blow for a team that has struggled at times on the defensive end.
Nosebleeds & a Formula for Disaster
In their six games preceding the Lakers matchup—of which they lost four—the Celtics failed to keep their opponents under 100 points. Last week, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens and President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge each commented publicly on the Celtics defensive shortcomings.
In his postgame comments following a 110-106 loss to the Spurs Wednesday night, Stevens set his sights on the team’s lack of interior defense, which gave up 27 of 33 field goals in the paint. “We’re not guarding the lane. We’re not protecting the rim. We’re not at the basket. I’m not talking about our bigs. I’m talking about everybody.” Explaining his switch to a zone defense, Stevens made clear it was not so much a clever decision but rather one born of desperation. “The zone helped us. It got us back in the game. But we were going to zone out of necessity because we couldn’t stop a nosebleed.”
Ainge, speaking to 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher & Rich,” pointed to a lack of across-the-board effort on the defensive end. “The frustrating thing about defense is you’ll have a guy that gets beat and he raises his hand or pounds his chest, like ‘My bad, my bad,’ so then he plays hard the next time. And then it’s someone else. With defense, you just have to [have] all five guys be on the same page and working together.”
Regarding the team’s defensive consistency, specifically in the loss to the Spurs, Ainge had this to say: “I know it’s in there, I know it’s in them, but if you don’t play defense consistently…I mean you just don’t go on the road and give up 56 percent shooting and win very often. It’s a formula for disaster.”
Missed Opportunity To Turn Things Around
Saturday’s nationally-televised matchup against the Lakers was seen as a prime chance for the Celtics to turn around their fortunes. Not only were the Lakers playing the sixth game of a seven-game road trip, but the Celtics were, as a whole, feeling healthier than they had been all season.
Their big three—Jayson Tatum, whose Covid illness forced him and several other Celtics to miss multiple games in January, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, playing in only his sixth game of the season because of a lingering knee injury—were once again on the floor together, only the second time all season. (The first was the recent loss to the Spurs.) This was the same trio that accounted for 64 points a game during the disjointed and partially-bubbled 2019-2020 campaign. And while the three superstars combined for 62 points Saturday against the Lakers, Walker’s 1-12 shooting (he missed an open look to win the game) and overall shaky play since returning is certainly a source of concern. Tatum and Brown, though, will get their points. The question is, with Smart now absent from a defense that already has issues with consistency and energy, will they be able to stop anyone?