WALTHAM — The Celtics, who face the freewheeling Suns on Monday, are just eight games into their season and their weaknesses are already glaring.
They have trouble stopping opponents in the fourth quarter, they need to find a primary scorer, and they have attempted 49 fewer free throws than their opponents.
Coach Brad Stevens emphasized defense — the Celtics are 28th in the NBA in points allowed and 27th in opponents’ field goal percentage — during Sunday’s practice. The Suns are eighth in the league in scoring.
“They’ve got a lot of different scoring guards,” Stevens said of the Suns. “They’ve got three or four guys who can get it going off high screens, by themselves. It’s really daunting.”
Phoenix may have the most explosive guard trio in the NBA with Goran Dragic (winner of last season’s most improved player award), recently re-signed Eric Bledsoe, and free agent acquisition Isaiah Thomas coming off the bench. The trio combines for 45 points per game.
“Those three guys could be the starting point guard in a lot of different places.” Stevens said. “You just have a lot of ability to put the ball in the basket and they get up and down the court. They’re a really good team.”
While the Celtics prepare to play four games in seven days, they are trying to find ways to improve defensively. Stevens said he was especially disappointed in the Celtics’ transition defense in Friday’s 122-121 loss to the Cavaliers.
“We talked a great deal about [transition defense], and those are choices you have to make to be great,” Stevens said. “The positive sign is, we were in the situation [to win] that we were in against one of the most talented, if not the most talented team, in the NBA, and a team that won their next 17 minutes [against Atlanta] by 35 [points]. You have to stop the [plays] you can control and that’s where we have to get a lot better.”
Point guard Rajon Rondo said the defense must improve.
“We have to get back on defense; we’re giving up a lot of points in transition,” he said. “It’s very important for us to get back on the defensive end of the floor. We’ve got to get back. All three guards.”
The past three Celtics games have been highlighted by breakout fourth-quarter performances from opposing players.
Aaron Brooks scored 19 in the final period of a Celtics victory Nov. 8 at Chicago, Anthony Morrow scored 19 in a 15-point loss to the Thunder on Wednesday, while LeBron James and Kyrie Irving combined for 25 in Cleveland’s comeback victory Friday.
How do the Celtics stop a blazing offensive player when the game is close?
“They’re all different in its own way,” Stevens said. “We were going to blitz Kyrie off of pick-and-rolls the rest of the game. The bottom line is, nobody can’t play. There are a lot of guys not in this league right now that can score the ball, that can go get buckets off of simple actions. It’s tough. That’s why you always have to be on edge.”
Said Rondo: “It’s going to take a continued team effort. A lot of it is ball screens up top [of the key]. We have to do a better job adjusting in the fourth.”
“When guys are specialists and do great things, you can’t give them an opportunity to feel great,” swingman Evan Turner said.
Rondo passes Pierce
Rondo passed Paul Pierce on Friday for fourth all-time in assists for the Celtics. Rondo, who has 4,321 assists in nine seasons, reflected on passing his close friend and former teammate.
“It’s an honor to pass up a name like Paul Pierce,” Rondo said. “A guy that’s been in this organization for 15-plus years. He’s done so many things along with scoring the ball, assisting, steals, turnovers. Whatever the case may be, you pass up a guy like Paul Pierce or come close to a guy like Larry Bird, it’s definitely an honor.
“It’s been an honor being in this organization for so long, nine years for me. I’m just very fortunate and happy to be a Celtic.”
Young, Powell shine in NBADL
Stevens said the shuttling of rookies James Young and Dwight Powell to Maine of the NBA Development League is only temporary.
The two scored 21 points apiece in the Red Claws’ 81-80 victory at Fort Wayne on Sunday and were expected to be back with the Celtics for Monday’s game. There are no limits to the number of times teams can send their rookies to the NBADL. Powell was sent down two weeks ago to play in Maine’s intrasquad game.
“Just the opportunity to play, the opportunity to get minutes,” Stevens said about sending the duo to Maine. “Our systems are almost identical. So when Dwight went up there for the scrimmage, he had no problem assimilating to the system. We thought it would better for them both to get live 30, 35 minutes of action than it would be to go through an hour-and-10-minute practice.”
Meanwhile, rookie point guard Marcus Smart is beginning to take shots from a stationary position and is able to walk without wearing a protective boot over his sprained left ankle. Smart could be back in two weeks.