MIAMI — The Celtics are facing a 3-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat, and on Tuesday night they will try to keep their season alive for at least one more game.
It has been a stunning and jarring week for a team that was the favorite to win the NBA title when this series began, and in some ways, it feels as if this implosion has arrived with little warning. But on Monday, guard Malcolm Brogdon hinted that some issues were masked during the previous two series, mostly because the Celtics went on to win them.
Brogdon could see ominous signs developing at a time when the Celtics had hoped to be peaking.
“I mean, it’s definitely concerning,” he said. “I think we’ve taken a few steps back in these playoffs overall. I think it’s showing because we’re playing a very disciplined, consistent, well-coached team. But I think in the Atlanta series, I think in the Philly series, I think we got away with things that now are biting us. So that’s definitely troubling.”
The Celtics had the NBA’s second-ranked defensive unit during the regular season, surrendering 110.6 points per 100 possessions. During the playoffs, their 113.5 defensive rating ranks 10th of 16 teams, and is the worst of the four remaining squads.
“We haven’t been consistently great defensively all year long, and that was the team’s identity last year,” Brogdon said. “I think that’s slipped away from us.
“We’ve had spurts where we’ve been great defensively, but not consistently. And honestly, we’ve struggled in every series we played.
“So now we’re playing a team that’s playing as if they’re the best team in the league, and they’re just incredibly disciplined, incredibly consistent. And I think we’ve struggled with teams that are consistent on a possession-by-possession basis every night.”
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla succinctly shared a similar sentiment after his team was demolished, 128-102, in Game 3 Sunday.
“I think some of that defensive identity has been lost, and we have to get that back,” he said, “and that’s where part of that is on me to make sure we get that back.”
The Celtics say their inconsistent 3-point shooting is actually the primary source of their defensive struggles. Missed 3-point shots tend to ignite opponents’ fast breaks, and players have acknowledged that the frustration resulting from missed shots sometimes clouds their focus at the other end of the floor.
“I think we’re a team that, all year long, has relied on making shots,” Brogdon said. “When we don’t make shots, our defense wanes, it slips. And that’s something we’ve talked about. It’s something we’ve tried to work on. It’s something we’ve been extremely aware to, but it’s continued to be an issue for us.”
The Celtics shot 37.7 percent from the 3-point line during both the regular season and the playoffs, so the downturn has not been pronounced. But they are shooting just 29.2 percent in this series.
NBA teams are 0-149 all-time when facing a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. The Celtics are mostly saying the right things, insisting they are not done yet and still believe they have a chance. But the 149 teams that preceded them probably all spoke similarly.
It’s simple and obvious, but on Monday, Mazzulla stressed that the Celtics cannot try to win the entire series during Game 4. They just need to win once and start building bricks. They just need to keep going.
“We have had moments in this series where we’ve played well,” Mazzulla said. “We just have to do our best to understand what it looks like when we play our best and how we can stay in that for long periods of Game 4. Just really be narrow-minded about one game at a time.”