By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics arrived in Orlando a potential title contender thanks to a solid offense and a one of the league’s best defenses. The offense made the trip to the NBA bubble, but the defense appears to have been lost like it was some piece of luggage.
Three games into the eight-game seeding schedule, the lack of defense from the C’s is getting a bit worrisome. The Boston defense look lost throughout Tuesday night’s important contest against the Miami Heat and the Celtics fell 112-106, shrinking their lead for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference over Miami to 1.5 games.
Did we mention the Heat were without Jimmy Butler? Because the Heat were without Jimmy Butler, and the Celtics still lost.
Defensively, the Celtics were a step behind from the jump, and Miami’s firing squad of three-point shooters took advantage. The Heat’s ball movement kept the C’s twisted, giving Miami the freedom to attack from deep or down low. The Heat made 10 threes in the first half, thanks to 6-for-13 shooting from downtown in the second quarter, allowing them to build a 16-point lead at one point. Of the nine players Erik Spoelstra sent on the floor, seven of them knocked down a three.
Duncan Robinson led Miami’s balanced attack with five makes on 11 attempts, including a pair of triples late in the fourth quarter to end any Boston comeback hopes.
“They did a great job cutting and we weren’t solid. They exposed that,” head coach Brad Stevens said after the loss. “Our defense has to improve from the first three games. Credit to Miami, they played with incredible togetherness and they were clearly the better team.”
When Boston was able to slow down the three-point barrage in the second half (or rather, when Miami cooled off), the Heat did their damage at the charity stripe thanks to Boston’s then-overzealous defense. Stevens got creative and went small, with Marcus Smart essentially playing center, and Miami big man Bam Adebayo did whatever he wanted in the paint. He finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds, three of which came off the offensive glass. Adebayo scored 11 of his points at the free throw line, getting 18 freebies.
It didn’t help that officials were a little whistle happy in the second half (Smart fouled out in the third quarter), but the hole that Boston dug itself into was too deep to overcome. The blame for that rests on the Boston defense.
The Heat were expected to light it up from long distance, because that is what they do. But the biggest concern is Boston getting beat in the paint, which is nothing new since the team arrived in the Orlando bubble. Jusuf Nurkic torched the C’s for 30 points on Sunday, and Giannis did whatever he wanted last Friday. It’s led to some woeful defensive numbers for the C’s, who are allowing 118 points per 100 possessions since returning — a full 11 points higher than their regular season average. It’s the third-worst average of the 22 teams down in Orlando, better than only the Blazers and 76ers.
“At the beginning of the year we guarded with great intensity and kept the ball out of the paint. We’re not doing as good of a job now,” said Stevens. “If it gets down there, we’re toast. So we have to keep it from getting down there.”
Everyone knows that defense wins championships, and if the Celtics want any shot at bringing a banner back to Boston, they’re going to have to get a lot better on defense. Clinching the No. 3 seed is no longer a certainty for Boston, which places a lot more emphasis on wins over the next five games. But the Celtics need to focus on becoming a much better defensive team, otherwise their championship bubble will burst a lot sooner than anyone anticipated.