The level of panic wasn’t what the Cavaliers are dealing with these days, but a four-game losing streak was enough for NBA observers to pay attention to what was going on with that other team in the East.
The Celtics entered Wednesday’s tilt against the Clippers at Staples Center fresh off a tough loss Tuesday to the Lakers, one of the worst squads in the NBA. Conference leading teams shouldn’t lose to those destined for the lottery but sometimes you catch a team on the right night and you take an L. You watch the tape, take your medicine, and it’s on to the next one.
“Every game is its own entity in this league,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
The Lakers played hard, maybe just a little bit harder than usual, with the franchise’s ancient rival in for its yearly trip. And when you’re one of the top teams in the league you’re always going to get an A-level effort out of the opponent.
So when Marcus Smart missed the game-winning three at the buzzer, it wasn’t that big of a deal to Stevens. Yeah, losing four in a row in the middle of a swing through the West isn’t ideal, and he was helpless watching Kyle Kuzma torch his team for 28 points, but he had less than 24 hours to flush it out his system.
“This is a hard league. You’re going to have your ups and downs,” said Stevens. “We were really fortunate to win 16 games in a row earlier this year when we could have lost about 11 of them. Sometimes things go your way.”
They did against the Clippers. Playing what Stevens called “one of our better games” offensively, the Celtics put to rest—for the time being—talk of any struggles. The scoring was balanced, the effort was superb given the fact it was the second leg of a back-to-back, and the NBA’s top defense got more than enough stops to frustrate and ultimately suppress the Clippers.
On to the next one.
Only the next one happens to be the ultimate test in the NBA right now: a date with the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.
While others immediately dismiss it, banking on the idea that the Cavaliers will round into form eventually, maybe Celtics-Warriors really is a preview of the NBA Finals. With the Cavaliers struggling big time with their lineups and, most glaringly, defense with no quick fixes seemingly on the horizon, why can’t the Celtics come out of the East if they’re going to continue to play stifling defense? What the Cavs do atrociously, the Celtics excel at and that’s why laughing at the idea that tonight’s second and final regular season meeting between the Cs and Dubs might not be the last time they see each other.
The Celtics are a significantly better defensive team this year compared to last. Leading the league in defensive efficiency and featuring five players among the top 20 in defensive win shares and six players among the top 20 in defensive rating—even with the addition of dynamic scorer Kyrie Irving—more often than not Boston is winning games because they’re shutting down the other squad. But why such a marked improvement from last year when they finished 18th in the league in defensive efficiency?
“We lost one of our best players at the start of the regular season,” Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum said, referring to Gordon Hayward. “So that’s around 20 points a night that we’re missing so we have to try and stop guys as much as we can to give ourselves a chance.”
“I just think this group plays really hard every night, even if we get behind there’s something about this group that always gives us a chance to win,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “But I’m not really sure what to pinpoint. It’s just a really special group.”
The first go-around between the Celtics and Warriors in November was one to remember. Boston erased a 17-point lead to knock off the Warriors 92-88. Comebacks have kind of been a thing for the Celtics this year and you can pull out a few improbable wins when you get down big if you force enough bad shots, grab rebounds, and create turnovers.
That’s what Boston did to the Warriors in the second half of that first game, holding Golden State to just 41 points after halftime. A repeat performance is probably not realistic Saturday night. Especially in Oracle Arena where the Warriors average 106.0 points a game. But if the Celtics, who enter as 10-point underdogs, can keep it close and pull off a sizable upset maybe all those league observers who still think Cleveland’s the team to beat in the East will start changing their tune. And if they're going to do it, it will be because of the defense.
“We have a lot of guys that can switch and guard multiple positions and I think that’s very valuable in the long run,” Tatum said.
Like all the way into the middle of June.