On second thought, Celtics still searching for winning identity

Just when we thought the Celtics had figured things out, they showed that they didn’t.

Just five days ago, I published an article declaring that the Celtics had “found their identity.” (exasperated sigh…) Clearly this is all my fault.

Here is what I said about the team then:

“Now that the team is gelling and producing, it is becoming apparent that the team’s identity is centered around ball movement, team defense, and a deep and talented roster.”

Let’s unpack that point by point, shall we?

First, you could make a strong case that my entire premise was flawed (or at least overly optimistic). It is easy to have an identity (or at least a positive one) when you are winning. It is harder to consistently perform within the bounds of that winning identity. It would be much closer to the truth to declare that this team’s identity thus far is inconsistency, which is definitely not a characteristic of a championship-contending team.

So please allow me to adjust my premise. The Celtics still appear to be searching for that winning identity. What we’ve seen, however, is a formula that works when it is employed properly. That formula, as I mentioned above, centers on ball movement, team defense, and depth.

Ball Movement

For five straight games, the Celtics recorded at least 30 assists and won four of those games. For the last three games they are averaging 20 assists and lost all three. That isn’t a coincidence. Shot making clearly plays a role in those numbers. The Celtics are shooting 41% from the field, good for 29th in the league during that stretch. You can’t get assists on missed buckets. And you need good ball movement to generate open looks.

The ball just doesn’t seem to be popping right now. When things are going well, the extra pass happens instinctively. It starts with the first read, then the ball finds a guy with some space, but even as the defender is closing that gap the ball is already moving to the next option (who’s in catch-and-shoot position with room to breathe). When things are going poorly, the first read is hesitant, the next pass is rushed, and far too often a bad shot goes up without looking for that extra look.

Team Defense

Despite the ups and downs, the Celtics have been a top five team in defensive rating all season long. Of course with any average there are some outliers. For example, over the last three games, the team has a defensive rating of 111.9, good for 19th in the league during that stretch.

Even within the games the Celtics defense comes and goes. All NBA teams are capable of going on or giving up runs. That’s to be expected and not to be overstated. The idea, however, is to limit those runs and contain them long enough to swing the momentum back the other way. All too often the floodgates open and these Celtics appear completely lost for answers for an extended period of time.

Then, as if by magic, they flip a switch and re-discover how to make defensive stops and completely shut the other team down for the rest of the game. Which makes it even more baffling and infuriating when they revert to turnstile defense. Worse, the stretches of insanely good defense are all for naught because the team dug itself such a huge hole that they are unable to complete the comeback by the final horn.

Team Depth

We’ve been over this before, but it seems like the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Lots of talented players but somehow the pieces don’t always fit. There have been frustrating injuries, but every team deals with that. Gordon Hayward has a built-in excuse for his inconsistency (fair or not) and Al Horford might be showing some signs of age and lingering injury limitations. The younger players have been inconsistent in part because… they’re young. Mix it all together and there are moments when too many players are going cold all at the same time which leads to individuals trying to force the issue (with good intentions and bad results).

In short, when things are going well, the Celtics come at you in waves and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. When things are going poorly, the Celtics look disjointed and lost on both ends of the floor. The pendulum swings wildly from game to game and quarter to quarter. They’ve been consistently inconsistent.

But hey, at least I got one thing right over the weekend.

“There will be more struggles, setbacks, and frustrations in the second half the year. There are still talented teams ahead of them in the standings. No one is suggesting that any of this will be easy from here on out.”

On the flip side, there will be more successes, progress, and lessons learned in the second half of the year. But will there be enough ups to cancel out the downs and earn a good playoff seeding? Will they find enough of a groove to reduce and minimize these pendulum swings? That will be the key to identifying the identity of this team.