BOSTON — Long after most all of his teammates had cleared the room, Jayson Tatum sat at his locker still in his game shorts. His left ankle, badly twisted on the evening’s first possession, was in a yellow bucket of ice.
Periodically, he would punch his right fist into his left hand. Occasionally there would be an expletive.
Though coach Joe Mazzulla continued to play his thoughts close to the vest and go for brevity (“Yeah, I thought they made shots. We weren’t as efficient in transition. Thought we just didn’t play well. Just didn’t play well,” he said), Malcolm Brogdon stepped up and said what everyone in the Celtic dressing quarters knew to be fact.
The required defense never arrived at the Garden Monday night for the Bostonians. And while scheme and coverage plans are part of that picture, so, too, is utter desire.
Brogdon had mentioned the Celts‘ wavering defensive identity before, and he was asked how big an issue it was for the club.
“It was THE issue,” Brogdon said, spilling the truth all over the microphone before him. “I think this was a team in the last year that prided themselves on defense. I think defense was our calling card. This year offense was our calling card. I don’t think you win championships with a high … with a better offense than you have a defense.”
Not a shocking statement at all, but sometimes it hits a bit hard when a player encapsulates the matter.
Celtics Had the Best Offense in the NBA
It’s been written here that if you want to be elite, you cannot be elitist. A team still has to grind on defense. It also has to pass and cut and share the ball on offense. The Celtics prospered on that end with great flashes of that, but the one-on-one forays that have dogged them into series losses in recent years were always close by. And settling for shots before making the opponent’s defense work appeared to have a more disastrous effect on the Boston defense. And it shouldn’t have.
“I think pretty much we were the best offensive team in the league, for sure,” Brogdon said. “Depth, you can talk about the ways we can score, our versatility on offense, really one through seven, one through eight. But defensively, I thought we had the versatility. I thought we have the talent defensively. But in any given night we would let go of the rope and have a lot of breakdowns on that end.
“We talk all the time about ball movement and player movement. Sort of having a free-flowing offense and trusting each other. When we’re not playing well offensively and shots aren’t falling, I think we lose trust. I think that’s how the game works. But I think we lose trust and it shows, and then we have more breakdowns on defense because we’re not making shots, because we stopped moving the ball. Then defensively it shows as well.”
You want to know why the Celtics don’t have a game on their schedule Thursday night? Go back and read that paragraph again.
Brogdon: Celtics Could Revamp Offense
As for whether the Shamrocks need to diversify their 3-point-centric offense, Brogdon said, “I think that’s something we’ll look at in the offseason. That’s definitely a Joe question. But for us, I think we can be better. I think we can.
“I think defensively is where the difference is for us more than anything, whether or not you make shots. That was a game, whether or not we made shots, if we got stops, we could stay in that game. That’s not a team that’s going to score 120 points. It’s not a team that’s going to get out in transition and beat you that way. They’re going to slow the game down and play in the half court. So if we can get stops, that’s a game we can stay in, even if we’re not making shots. But the fact of the matter is we didn’t get stops. That ultimately was the death of us.”
Again, a paragraph that lands like a sledgehammer. A torn tendon in his right elbow kept him out of Game 6 and limited him to seven minutes Monday. His needed offense was unavailable.
But the Celtic problems ran too deep. Maybe Brogdon could have helped stop the slide here, but the 57-win C’s were in fine health when losing the first three games to the Heat, who barely made the playoff cut.
“Yeah, it’s all around frustrating,” Brogdon said. “The hole we put ourselves in, it’s hard. No one’s climbed out of that hole. It was the same tonight. We couldn’t climb out of the hole we created.
“I thought we showed how resilient we were, how good of a team we are, climbing out of it partially. But not being able to finish it on your home floor? That’s super disappointing. Then getting beat in the way we got beat… They handled us tonight. So that’s definitely disappointing.”
As he spoke, it felt like you could almost hear Tatum’s fist pounding his open hand a room away.