Lost defensive ID proves fatal
When the Celtics suspended Ime Udoka for the season and promoted Joe Mazzulla to become a firsttime head coach, they did more than simply make a coaching change. They changed their identity.
The C’s were two wins away from a championship under Udoka behind the strength of their defense, but they came up short because they didn’t have enough offense. With Mazzulla in charge, the style shifted to an offensive-first approach.
Ultimately, the Celtics fell short of expectations because of that lost defensive identity. It’s what dug them in an 0-3 series deficit to the Heat that was too much to overcome even after they rediscovered their defense to reel off three consecutive wins and force an unthinkable Game 7.
“It was the issue,” Malcolm Brogdon said of their lost defensive identity. “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 … better offense than you have a defense.”
Mazzulla’s offense was unstoppable to start the season as the unit performed at historic levels in October and November. The coach prioritized spacing and shooting 3-pointers, and it worked at the beginning. But when it reverted back to the mean, when nights came that their 3-point shots weren’t falling, the C’s couldn’t rely on anything else to win games.
Including the playoffs, the Celtics had a 52-9 record when they shot 35 percent or better from 3-point range this season. When they shot below that mark, they were 16-25.
Asked if his team was too reliant on 3-point shooting, Mazzulla was defiant.
“No,” the coach said, flatly.
But on poor shooting nights, the Celtics’ defense often wasn’t there like it was a year ago. Robert Williams’ absence for the first 29 games of the season loomed large, and while the Celtics still had a topfive defense in the regular season, it was ultimately too inconsistent.
Their 3-point shooting doomed them in the most important games of the season. The Celtics shot 20 percent from deep — their worst mark of the season — in Game 6 against the Heat and barely survived thanks to Derrick White’s miraculous buzzer-beating tipin. They followed that up with a 21.4 percent effort — their second-worst mark of the year — in Game 7 as they missed their first 12 attempts from three, and it haunted them. It put too much pressure on their defense as they dug a hole they couldn’t climb out of to end their season.
“Defensively, I thought we had the versatility, I thought we have the talent defensively,” Brogdon said. “But on any given night we would let go of the rope and have a lot of breakdowns on that end.”
Now, as they head to the offseason full of questions, how they fix those inconsistencies and flaws will be among the biggest.
“That’s definitely a Joe question,” Brogdon said. “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.
“(Game 7) 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.”
Brogdon may need surgery
Brogdon fought through a painful right forearm injury to suit up for Monday’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but the Celtics guard ultimately just wasn’t himself on the biggest stage of his career.
Brogdon confirmed after the Celtics’ season-ending Game 7 loss to the Heat that he was dealing with a partial tear of a tendon in his right forearm. The Sixth Man of the Year’s performance declined because of it as his terrific season ended in disappointing fashion.
Brogdon, who missed Game 6 because of the injury, scored just two points combined over the final four games he played, and just eight minutes in the finale, as the discomfort he experienced put a toll on him.
“Unfortunately, you use it a lot to shoot,” Brogdon said. “So, when I’m shooting, I’m having a lot of pain.”
Brogdon said surgery is something he will consider this summer as he recovers from the injury.
It amounted to a completely deflating end to a promising season. Brogdon, who wanted to be traded to the Celtics last summer for this kind of opportunity, was obviously disappointed.
“I came here to win a championship, to help this team as much as I could. I thought we had a great season. After the season we had, it’s definitely crushing. For me personally, I did feel, I do feel great, my body feels great. I just have this tear in my arm which is unfortunate but it’s part of the game. I tried to battle through it, (Jayson Tatum) tried to battle through a sprained ankle literally on the first play of the game, so and there are guys on the Heat that are battling through stuff. …
“So, this is how the game is. Sometimes the ball doesn’t roll your way. But we’ll regroup and we’ll be back next year.”
Williams had stomach bug
The Celtics were healthy for the majority of the postseason, but they were hobbled at the worst possible time as they limped to the finish line. In addition to Brogdon’s injury and Tatum’s sprained ankle, Robert Williams played through the season-ending loss with a stomach virus, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. The Celtics center played just 14 minutes in the finale and was throwing up in the back area of the Garden during the game.