Blazers 92, Celtics 86
After blowing away the competition in Phoenix on Friday night, the Celtics (29-27) came crashing back to earth with a tough loss against the Blazers (26-30). Kevin Garnett returned after taking a game off to rest, and Paul Pierce played extremely well (23 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists), but the new-look C’s were unable to close it out against a Blazers squad that had lost seven straight coming into Sunday night’s contest. Boston has now lost three of their last four and are 5.5 games behind the Knicks in the Atlantic Division. They have a chance to end their post All-Star break road trip with a win as they travel to Utah for a tilt with the Jazz on Monday night (9 p.m. ET).
West coast road trips have been challenging for this team, but considering the fact that they lost three consecutive games by an average of 23 points on their last trip to the Pacific time zone, these three losses seem comparatively easy to swallow. They played a surging Nuggets team down to the wire, dropped the second half of a back-to-back to a desperate Lakers squad, and on Sunday night they couldn’t earn a tough road victory at a notoriously rowdy Rose Garden Arena. These losses are nothing to sneeze at, and they may help a roster that is clearly in a transitional phase come together over the final months of the season.
Don’t forget that help is on the way. Boston signed D.J. White to a 10-day contract and he should be able to play as soon as his paperwork arrives from the Franchise that he was playing for in the Chinese League. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has also indicated that he will fill the remaining available roster spot with another big man, and the Celtics front office has a long list of candidates that they are apparently deciding between.
However, the group that is in place right now is simply not built to win a slow-paced basketball games. Bringing in Jordan Crawford and Terrence Williams looks great as long the C’s are able to run past their opponents, but once the game slows down, they struggle on both sides of the ball.
Playing small lineups presents difficulties when it comes to finishing defensive possessions with a rebound, but the offensive limitations of Boston’s current personnel packages surfaced against a Portland team that is 20th in the league in pace (91 possessions per 48 minutes according to Basketball-Reference’s metrics). Right now, spacing is a glaring problem for this team in a half court setting. When they play three guards along with Jeff Green and Garnett, there isn’t enough movement on or off the ball to get those guards clean looks on a consistent basis.
Paul Pierce was able to offset these issues by torching the Blazers at the start of the second half with a vintage array of step-backs and drives to the basket. Yet when he checked out of the game at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the C’s offense sputtered and never really recovered. They were held without a field goal for five straight minutes as the Blazers opened up an eight-point lead.
Boston was able to fight back and tie the game at 84 before their defensive shortcomings came to the forefront. So often in the NBA, defense prowess amounts to a team’s ability to guard the pick-and-roll. With such a short lineup on the floor, Doc Rivers exhorted his players to ‘pull-in’ against the Blazers’ pick-and-roll, and this left them exposed to the biggest shot of the night. One possession after Damian Lillard broke the deadlock with a strong drive to the bucket, the Celtics’ vulnerable D pulled in to prevent another easy hoop. With the defense on it’s heels, Wesley Matthews was able to create enough space off and he buried his fifth three of the game after a nifty step-back move.
Defensive lapses will continue to haunt the C’s as they become more comfortable playing with each other. This is essentially a new team, and understanding the complicated defensive concepts that Coach Rivers designs and Garnett delineates on the court will take time. If the adversity of this road trip helps this squad become more cohesive over the upcoming months, then perhaps a silver lining can be found in their defeats.