Checking the Celtics panic meters on Kemba Walker, 4th-quarter defense

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Chris Forsberg
·6 min read
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Forsberg: Checking the panic meters on Kemba, late-game defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics have lost seven of their last 10 games since emerging from a COVID-19 hiatus in mid-January.

Kemba Walker has turned in two of his worst shooting performances in green and has admitted his obvious frustrations, the Celtics’ defense hasn’t routinely gotten stops when they’ve needed them, and health woes have complicated rotation matters for head coach Brad Stevens.

So is this stretch just a bump in the road, or are these long-term issues for the Celtics?

Let’s bust out our panic meters and assess some of the more notable matters on a scale of 1 to 10:

KEMBA’S ROLLER COASTER RIDE

Let’s start with the good: Walker looked like his old All-Star self in the second half Friday night against the Clippers and his late-game pull-up jumper helped Boston produce one of its best wins of the season.

He followed that up with a 4-for-20 clunker against the Suns in which he looked as frustrated as he did while going 1-for-12 against the Lakers before the trip out West.

While acknowledging that his minute restriction and Boston’s other health woes haven’t aided his cause, Walker is shooting just 35.7 percent overall and a dismal 30.9 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He’s getting swallowed up on drives, shooting a gruesome 18.2 percent on all shots between 3-10 feet, and attempting only 2.8 free throws per game while exasperatingly pleading for whistles.

In his 245 minutes of floor time through nine appearances, the Celtics have a minus-5.3 net rating and it spikes to plus-3.6 in his 283 minutes on the bench since his return.

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Here’s our biggest concern: Last season Walker averaged 6.1 points on 10.9 drives per game. He shot 47.7 percent and scored on 55.8 percent of those drives, per NBA tracking data. This year, his drives aren’t down all that much considering his restricted playing time, but he’s averaging just 4.6 points on 9.7 drives per game. He’s shooting 35.7 percent on those drives and getting points only 47.1 percent of attempts. What’s more, Walker is getting blocked 1.5 times per game this year.

We’re past the rust-shaking phase and it’s fair to wonder if this is just a slump or indicative of physical limitations. Walker’s ball security issues in crunch time and opponents’ ability to pick on his size at the other end hasn’t made his offensive woes any easier to digest.

Panic Meter: 6. An acclimation process should have been expected and maybe better team health can help Walker find an offensive rhythm. Boston’s spacing admittedly has been a disaster lately.

But right now, Walker is struggling to positively impact the offense on a consistent basis. 

BOSTON’S LATE-GAME (AHEM) DEFENSE

The Celtics, who had slipped all the way to No. 21 in defensive rating a couple weeks back, have quietly made an impressive surge back inside the top 10 (ranking No. 9 through Sunday’s games). 

If it weren’t for fourth quarters, they might rank in the top 5.

Boston currently sits 25th in the NBA in fourth-quarter defensive rating, allowing an unsightly 113.4 points per 100 possessions. Zoom in on crunch-time defense -- when the score is within five points in the last five minutes -- over the last 11 games and it gets even worse. The Celtics are allowing 125.4 points per 100 possessions in that admittedly small 26-minute sample but are just 2-6 in those games.

The calling card of Brad Stevens’ teams has always been defense, particularly an ability to dig in during the fourth quarter and produce stops when they are needed most. This year, that simply hasn't happened with any regularity.

That’s why Friday’s win in Los Angeles was so impressive. Even with both teams shorthanded, the Celtics watched Semi Ojeleye force Mr. Clutch Kawhi Leonard into two misses in the final 32.1 seconds to escape with the win.

Forsberg: An ode to Semi Ojeleye, Boston's ultimate clutch defender

But they’ve rarely been able to replicate that lately. Boston is second in the NBA with 15 of its 22 games reaching the crunch-time criteria. After winning five of their first seven crunch-time games, sometimes stealing a win like in the opener against Milwaukee on Jayson Tatum’s banked 3-pointer, the Celtics' wheels have come off lately.

Panic meter: 8. Good teams find ways to win close games. In the playoffs, most games are tight to the finish line. Boston has no shortage of offensive weapons and that side is going to take care of itself organically, but this team has to find its defensive DNA and make defense its backbone.

THE QUEST FOR A ROTATION

Health and inconsistent play have conspired against Stevens finding a steady rotation. Walker missed the start of the season while rehabbing his knee, Tatum lost a couple weeks to COVID-19, Marcus Smart strained his calf, Payton Pritchard strained his knee, and Jaylen Brown had to sit the last two games due to knee soreness.

The daunting nature of an unrelenting schedule is probably going to force Stevens to stay on his toes for much of the 2020-21 season.

But it’s been hard to know who the team can lean on from night to night. Some of that is that there simply hasn’t been enough separation among players. But a team that’s often found its best basketball with small-ball groupings has played an awful lot of two- and (gulp) three-big lineups lately with the '5' often their healthiest position.

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Tristan Thompson has been excellent on this West Coast trip. We’re eager to see more single-big lineups -- with either him or the chemistry-aided Theis -- alongside Boston’s core. Smart’s absence could force the Celtics to stay big and Grant Williams could state a case to be a more consistent rotation presence, especially if he keeps shooting 3s the way he has. 

We will admit we’re left yearning for a bit more Aaron Nesmith, who seemed to be getting an opportunity late last month before disappearing again. The defensive lapses are obvious but on a team painfully thin on wing depth, we’re left curious to see if he could sink or swim in more consistent chunks of minutes. 

Panic meter: 3. A healthy Romeo Langford and a midseason addition with the Gordon Hayward traded player exception could help the team find a more consistent rotation by next month. This is the time players need to really state their case and Stevens needs to lock in on the guys he can lean on.