“They’ve just got one problem: They don’t play that hard when they’re comfortable.”
The Celtics hit a bit of a skid in recent weeks coming out of the All-Star break.
There were arguably two separate apex points in their recent 13-10 stretch that caused the most concern. The first came following a three-game losing streak earlier in March in which they blew double-digit leads to the Nets, Knicks, and Cavaliers, respectively. The other came when the Celtics lost to the Rockets, who hold the second-worst record in the league, on Monday.
Boston still holds a winning record over its last 24 games, going 14-10, but it’s a far cry from the dominant stretch it had in the first half of the season and the second half of the regular season last year.
As many are trying to figure out why the Celtics aren’t playing as well lately, NBC Sports Boston Celtics analyst Brian Scalabrine thinks there’s just one root to their issues.
“They’ve just got one problem: They don’t play that hard when they’re comfortable,” Scalabrine said on “The Lowe Post” podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe.
Scalabrine said that the Celtics playing too comfortably affects both ends of the court. Even though the Celtics are sixth in defensive rating (111.6) over their last 24 games, Scalabrine said he hasn’t seen the same intensity on the end of the court as he has in the past, at least on a consistent basis.
“They don’t guard at nearly the clip that they used to guard at,” Scalabrine said. “It used to be that everyone’s fighting to be the best defender on the team. It was a good rivalry … It used to be a thing. They used to take pride in guarding the ball. They used to take pride in shutting down the other team’s best player.
“I actually believe they have moments of that. But they’re far from, far from a 48-minute per game team that sits down defensively and really works on that side of the ball.”
The Celtics’ offense has taken a more notable dip. After posting a historical offensive rating through the early parts of the season, Boston has a 115.2 offensive rating over its last 24 games, ranking 16th in the league over that span.
Scalabrine credited the dip in production to a dip in consistent effort, too.
“It was like almost overnight, they got a little lazy offensively,” Scalabrine said. “As in, ‘I don’t need to really do that extra stuff. I don’t really need to drive the ball two or three times. I could just get up and rise up and make the shot. Or I could just force a shot over a guy at the rim.’ And that went away. Those are fundamental things in the NBA that you have to do to be great.”
“The Celtics were relentless at drive-and-kicking and attacking,” Scalabrine added. “They’re not like that anymore.”
Lowe brought up a pair of stats that backed up Scalabrine’s argument that they aren’t necessarily trying as hard as they used to on the offensive end. He noted that while the Celtics haven’t been a team that gets to the free-throw line a lot this season (ranking 25th in free-throw rate), they ranked 28th in free-throw rate in their 23 games prior to Friday’s win over the Trail Blazers and they were also last in midrange shooting during that stretch.
Scalabrine speculated that the Celtics might just be a team that thinks “it’s a long season and we’re just going to flip the switch.” He believes they can flip the switch, but doesn’t “know for certain” as he noted habits could be created from skids like the one the Celtics have recently been on.
However, Scalabrine thinks that the impending return of Rob Williams could give them exactly what they need. Offensively, he thinks that Williams can provide the rim pressure needed to allow more open looks along the perimeter while bringing pivotal play around the rim defensively.
“It still comes down to restriction area [play] and rebounding the ball,” Scalabrine said. “When Rob plays, they’re by far the best restriction area team in the NBA. When he doesn’t, they’re like, 27th.”
Scalabrine might be right. Between Dec. 16 and March 1, a stretch in which Williams has played 27 games, the Celtics went 23-11 but posted a 4.8 net rating over that time, which was the third-best in the league over that stretch.
The Celtics might have gotten back on the right track, at least in terms of offensive aggression, in their win over the Trail Blazers on Friday. They shot 35 free throws, the third-most they’ve shot in a game this season, as Jayson Tatum shot nine free throws in the first quarter of the 126-112 win.
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