Effort and focus have gone missing: 10 Takeaways from Celtics/76ers

1. Following another disappointing loss, Brad Stevens, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker all spoke about the Celtics not being good enough. Stevens focused on execution on defense, saying Boston isn’t focused enough to be “sustainably competitive”. Brown spoke mostly about effort, while putting a lot on his own shoulders (admirably, but misplaced as it was). Walker’s comments were more wide-ranging, as he touched on both offense and defense.

As it stands today, Boston’s defensive rating is 111.5 (21st in the league). That’s the worst defensive rating of the Brad Stevens era by three over points per 100 possessions. In simpler terms: the Celtics are an awful defense right now.

Some can be explained away by the constant roster shuffling, but that’s a explaining it away. Some of the top defensive teams this season have missed just as many players as Boston has. And in years where the Celtics roster was a revolving door, the defense was always somewhere between solid and great.

Mostly, communication and effort are poor at the moment. You can find viable reasons for the first, if you want. There is no excuse for the second. The bigs are getting beaten up inside and the guards are allowing things to be too easy on the perimeter. This may not get fixed by the players on the floor getting better. That leaves it to scheme tweaks by Stevens (more on that next) and Danny Ainge to fix the roster via trade.

2. Stevens did tweak the defense a bit. Since he got to Boston, the Celtics have been one of the least double-team dependent defenses in the NBA. Boston switches a lot and trusts their players to execute those switches, and resulting scrambles out of mismatches, at a high level. And when you are one-on-one, the expectation is that you make it hard on the player you are guarding. That’s not happening enough right now.

With no answer for Joel Embiid straight up, Boston resorted to doubling him. They sent the double from different places and at different times. Here they pick Embiid up while he has a live dribble, but just as he starts backing down Daniel Theis. The result is an offensive foul and turnover:

It was only so effective, as Embiid still dominated with 38 points on 11-of-15 shooting. But the Celtics did force him into five turnovers. Look for the double to be a bigger part of how they defend the big man.

3. Jaylen Brown’s scoring game is more diverse than ever. His jumper is wet right now. Off the dribble pullups, step-backs, catch-and-shoots off screens, or straight spot-ups, it doesn’t matter. Brown is making all of them. It’s really great to see.

Also great are plays like this. Brown seals Furkan Korkmaz on his back. Then as the defense catches up, he shows good patience to fake his way into a nice hook shoot:

And, of course, Brown remains one of the more athletic finishers Boston has ever had:

4. Lost a bit in the loss, is that Payton Pritchard was injured. Early in the game, Jaylen Brown got tangled up with and pushed by Dwight Howard. As Brown fell, he landed into the side of Pritchard’s right knee. Pritchard didn’t get up and could be seen on the broadcast saying “I heard it pop”.

The initial diagnosis for Pritchard was a sprain. Brad Stevens had no update after, but said Pritchard would undergo more testing when he got back to Boston. At any rate, it looks like the Celtics will be without their impressive rookie guard for at least a little while. And that’s an issue.

Jeff Teague hasn’t been very good. He had a disappointing turnover in this one where he dribbled off his foot and then just watched the ball roll to the Sixers. He didn’t even attempt to recover it. That’s hard to stomach.

Pritchard’s injury and Teague’s struggles leave Boston thin behind Kemba Walker. The best answer may be to move Marcus Smart back to the bench. The challenge there becomes who takes his place in the starting group? The two-big lineups haven’t been good and the wing depth is suspect. Once again, the answer may not come from within.

5. Kemba Walker continues to look good. He’s clearly improved physically and now it looks like his rhythm is coming back. This pullup is one Boston needs to be able to beat Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Miami:

This sort of crafty finish also gives you a sense that Walker is feeling good:

6. The Brown and Walker takeaways end the positive portion of this edition. If you want to leave now, before things get negative, we fully understand!

It’s hard to reconcile Marcus Smart’s game the last two outings. On one hand, when everyone else let go of the rope, Smart desperately clung to it and kept Boston in the game. On the other hand, a little less from him earlier in the game might have caused it to not get away in the first place.

Smart is beloved and should be. His game isn’t measured in stats. That is good, because some of the stats aren’t kind. One reason why? Wasted possessions like this one. Smart dribbled for most of this possession and then launched this shot when he didn’t have to. It’s just bad, hard-to-watch basketball:

7. Rebounding remains an issue. For the fourth straight game, the opponent grabbed at least 10 offensive rebounds. The Celtics continue to slip down the ranks in defensive rebound percentage. Right now, they sit at 17th.

This is a spot where Jayson Tatum and his 6.7 defensive rebounds per game can help, but it’s bigger than that. Again, it’s got a lot to do with effort. The Celtics aren’t putting bodies on players and they aren’t attacking the ball.

8. Daniel Theis, who was pretty solid in the last couple of games, started the second half in place of Grant Williams. That had to happen because Williams has been a disaster. He can’t defend anyone at the moment and his offense is equally as bad.

I’m not even sure what this is. Williams dribbled himself into the corner, then pivoted a couple of times before the clip starts. Credit where credit is due: Tobias Harris plays solid defense. That said, this is a mess from Williams:

Maybe it’s a sophomore slump, but Williams can’t be a rotation player when Tatum gets back. All the minutes he’s playing have to go some combination of Semi Ojeleye, two bigs (Theis and Robert Williams worked well together in this one) or eventually more minutes for Tatum. Williams will eventually work his way back, but he’s clearly deep inside his head at the moment.

9. Boston actually kept turnovers under control for the most part. Except for the third quarter. The Celtics gave it away five times in the third and forced the Sixers to cough it up only twice. That made it far too easy for Philadelphia to score. A 42-point third quarter gave the 76ers control of the game and they never looked back.

10. What was maybe the most disappointing part of the last two games was the Celtics letting go of the rope. As referenced above, Marcus Smart hung on for dear life, but his teammates seemed to collectively give up. That’s not Boston basketball. This team has never been the most talented under Brad Stevens, but they’ve always had the most grit. Finding that spirit again will do more for reversing this current slide than making a trade or getting players back from injury will.