The Celtics have had a rough week so far.
First, one of their premiere free agents goes down with what could be a season-ending ankle injury, and that then prompts two consecutive losses where the team has looked a little out of whack.
There are numerous things I saw during these past two losses that have kept the Celtics from being able to pull away for the win, so let’s dive right into them.
1. Lack of Ball-Movement Down the Stretch
This has been a somewhat new issue for the Celtics, and it’s largely due to the fact that this is the beginning of the learning process for Kyrie Irving, a player whose isolation prowess has been a staple of his game for years.
And while Kyrie’s flashy style of play is nice and entertaining to watch, his lack of awareness and tendency to hold the ball for long stretches of time (ala Rajon Rondo) have hurt the Celtics, especially against a long and young team like the Milwaukee Bucks. In the first game of the season, Kyrie’s isolation game was largely effective in part because the Cavaliers are a more offensive-minded team that contains numerous shaky veterans and shooting wings. Against the Bucks, however, this wasn’t as effective due to the fact that Milwaukee has a few young guards that can guard the perimeter much more effectively.
Up next the Celtics will have games against the 76ers and the Knicks, meaning they will have sometime to fix things before they have to try their luck against Giannis and the Bucks again. Hopefully Brad Stevens and the coaching staff are able to clear things up with Kyrie and get everyone moving the ball more effectively near the end of games. He may be a wizard on offense during most nights, but he has his weaknesses too!
2. Jaylen Brown’s Improving, but needs to stay out of foul trouble
Jaylen Brown quickly became one of the most important Celtics since Gordon Hayward went down. His versatility on the defensive side is a major reason he should be receiving big minutes from the Celtics, and his shot has improved dramatically from last year. Also, his All-Star potential should make you want to buy his jersey!
I also want to emphasize how incredible he looks driving to the basket, as he looks much more in control and finishes with authority in the paint. I think Jaylen is only going to benefit from being in the starting lineup most games, and I have him as a lock for MIP (Most Improved Player) once the seasonal awards roll around.
But like any young player, Brown has a weakness that needs to be addressed: His knack for picking up silly fouls.
Okay, he was guarding two of the toughest covers in his first two games in LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Brown needs to realize the value that he has for the Celtics down the stretch. He is by far one of their best wing defenders, and his improved offensive game is vital for the Celtics during crunch time, where he will definitely get big minutes if he can stay in the game. Brown should focus on staying grounded and forcing those great players to make the tough shots, and tipping his hat when they manage to hit them.
Brad Stevens’ focus should also be to defend players like Giannis and LeBron by committee, and I think one guy that should definitely help Jaylen handle some of those ball-handling forwards will be Marcus Morris when he gets back to the team. It was reported that he would be out for the first three games, but when he comes back he will be key in defending guys like Giannis with his long frame and strong body makeup.
3. Perimeter defense needs to be addressed
We knew this could have become an issue ever since the Celtics let Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder walk, but nobody was expecting this to be as bad as it was during the Celtics’ home debut.
The Bucks are a good team, and Giannis has a legitimate look at the MVP award this year (What if we had drafted him?), but the Celtics need to get some of their young guards like Terry Rozier and Abdel Nader to lock down and protect other ball-handlers from getting to the paint so easily. Aaron Baynes is good, and Al Horford is a pretty good rim protector, but the Celtics looked lost on multiple possessions and allowed the Bucks to merely walk in the paint, leading to numerous slams from Giannis and countless easy shots for Kris Middleton and company. If the Celtics want to be relevant, they need to be involved in both sides of the ball.
This point is only emphasized by the fact that the Celtics are trying to rely on small ball. You simply cannot play small and allow the sort of penetration the Celtics did on Wednesday and expect to win. This is something Brad Stevens needs to get on as well. The 76ers are a young team, but Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are both wizards at attacking the rim and getting in the paint, so it should be a good test to see if a few defensive adjustments are all it takes to get this team back on track.