Celtics' weaknesses exposed during two-game losing skid

A. Sherrod Blakely
NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON –  The first two-game losing streak suffered by the Boston Celtics this season came within hours following Gordon Hayward's gruesome dislocated left ankle injury.

The second, two-game losing streak involved ex-Celtic Kelly Olynyk (now in Miami) having the best game of his NBA life, and was followed by Michael Beasley delivering an "M-V-P, M-V-P" chant-inspiring performance for the New York Knicks.

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Fast forward to the present with the Celtics (34-12) hours removed from an 89-80 loss to Philadelphia that was preceded by an overtime loss to New Orleans on Tuesday.

While suffering a two-game setback is nothing new to the Celtics, the most recent back-to-back losses have a very different feel about them.

The two previous sets of back-to-back losses involved an extraordinary occurrence to the Celtics' detriment, factor into their defeats.

And while Anthony Davis (46 points, 16 rebounds) for New Orleans and Philadelphia's Joel Embiid (26 points, 16 rebounds, six assists) each had exceptional games for their respective teams, both rank among the league's best players (both were named starters in next month's all-star game) – so no one should have been blown away by them having big games against Boston.

But Kelly Olynyk and Michael Beasley each dropping 32 points, on back-to-back nights?  

More than anything, the two most recent losses exposed what are arguably some of the biggest weaknesses and concerns for a Celtics squad that boasts the best record in the Eastern Conference (34-12) and is on pace to eclipse the 60-win mark for the first time since 2009.

Here's a look at the four biggest issues brought to light during Boston's most recent two-game losing streak.

 

DEFENDING DOMINANT BIG MEN

The issue for the Celtics when it comes to their frontcourt, has to do with a lack of talented bodies and not a lack of talent.

Al Horford and Aron Baynes have been a good 1-2 defensive punch for Boston in the frontcourt this season. And Daniel Theis on many nights has done a solid job of providing some much-needed production at both ends of the floor off Boston's bench. But beyond those three, there's little to no production from any one else among Boston's big men. And while a rotation of three big men works for the most part in the playoffs, the last two games exposed Boston's lack of depth at the center position. Between now and the playoffs, the Celtics are expected to vigorously explore the buyout market with an eye towards using some or all of the disabled player exception they received for Gordon Hayward's injury.

 

INCONSISTENT OFFENSE

Boston's offense has been pretty much hit or miss most of this season. Because of that inconsistency, figuring out a solution has been among the more daunting tasks for this coaching staff.

But the last two games have really been rough for the Celtics. And yes, not having Kyrie Irving (left shoulder soreness) certainly didn't help matters in Boston's 89-80 loss to Philadelphia. But with or without Irving, there have been fundamental shortcomings with the offense that exist regardless of who's playing. 

  • Ball movement: Boston makes 301.3 passes per game which ranks 15th in the NBA. A year ago, they averaged 324.8 passes per game which ranked third in the NBA.

  • Drives: Boston averages 38.2 drives per game which ranks 22nd in the NBA. A year ago, they were 16th in the league with 37.5 drives per game.

  • According to nba.com, the Celtics average a league-low 14.7 paint touch points this season, compared to last season when they averaged 18.7.

 

KYRIE IRVING FACTOR

The Boston Celtics didn't need to see Kyrie Irving in street clothes to appreciate the impact he makes on games. His shifty, ankle-breaking dribbling skills are what separates him from his peers both on the Celtics roster and in the NBA, which is why the 25-year-old was chosen as a starter in next month's all-star game which will be his fifth all-star selection. And while Irving has shown a greater willingness to defend consistently, Boston's defense is generally better when he's not on the floor. When he has been on the floor in games this year, the team's defensive rating has been a solid 101.2. But when he's off, it improves to 96.5. Naturally there's an offensive dip in the team's efficiency when he's on the bench. On the floor, Boston has an offensive rating of 108.1 but falls to 97.5 when he's off. Finding a way to stay engaged and effective offensively when Irving gets a breather, is one of the many challenges Boston faces.

 

NUMBER TWO SCORER NEEDED

 You knew there would come a time in the season when not having Gordon Hayward around would be a major bummer. Now is that time. The last two games made it abundantly clear that after Irving, there really isn't that one player the Celtics can turn to who provides a consistent scoring presence.

Jayson Tatum has been winning over fans all season long. He has the range, the ability to take over but lacks experience to do so consistently. We'll keep an eye out for him to start becoming more aggressive, more assertive which benefits both him and the Celtics. Marcus Morris has a nice inside-outside game and seems to be getting better.

Jaylen Brown has shown flashes of being capable of producing offensive explosions, but the second-year wing isn't quite ready to take on that next-in-command load full-time. He averages 14.2 points per game which is second on the Celtics in scoring. Only three teams (Atlanta, Sacramento and Indiana) have a second-leading scorer who averages fewer points than Brown. Boston hopes the coming weeks will bring about someone, anyone to help fill the void that we all know would have been manned by Hayward.

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