Now that the Boston Celtics' season is over, there is a storyline solidifying: After dominating defensively en route to the 2022 NBA Finals under former coach Ime Udoka, they strayed from their identity this season. First-year coach Joe Mazzulla obsessed over the offense, prioritized spacing when constructing the rotation and deemphasized two-big lineups featuring Robert Williams III and Al Horford.
Malcom Brogdon said Monday, after Boston was blown out in Game 7 at home against the Miami Heat in the conference finals, that "offense was our calling card," adding, "I don't think you win championships with a better offense than you have a defense." The Athletic's Jay King and Jared Weiss reported Thursday that Brogdon wasn't the only player who believed the team had tilted too far in one direction: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown met with Mazzulla in March and advocated for Grant Williams to be on the floor. After falling down 3-0 against Miami, Mazzulla himself said that the Celtics had lost some of their defensive identity.
To team president Brad Stevens, however, it's not that simple. At his end-of-season press conference, he said that offense turned out to be a bigger problem than defense against the Heat, just like it was against the Golden State Warriors last season.
"I thought that we had to improve offensively to become better, to compete, and we had to be able to play defense and maintain that level and identity that we had prior to [this season] to be our very best," Stevens said. "And on both ends we came up a little bit short. I do think that if I had to say one end that we came up more short on, in our last few games, it was probably the offensive end, with the turnovers. And we obviously didn't shoot the ball well, and Miami shot it great."
Stevens pointed out that, as well as finishing the regular season with the second-best offense in the league, they had the second-best defense. He said that, "from a lineup standpoint," it was tougher to be "what we could be defensively at our most dynamic" because, after offseason surgery on his left knee, Robert Williams III only appeared in 35 games and played limited minutes, in an effort to get him as healthy as possible for the playoffs. The two-big work look worked when Mazzulla eventually went to it against the Philadelphia 76ers, but "it was a lot harder" against Miami, Stevens said.
"They went small fast and spread us out and were running great action and they made it tough for us to defend those guys on the perimeter," Stevens said. "And they made, again, made a ton of shots from a lot of different places. And a lot of different people."
The truth is that, as Mazzulla has said repeatedly, Derrick White , and, after Jayson Tatum hurt his ankle on the first play of Game 7, Boston never sustained enough offensive flow or its defensive focus.. And late in the Heat series, the Celtics missed tons of 3s and made numerous mistakes on defense. They fell apart on both ends late in Game 6 until
"Game 6 we played pretty well, we didn't shoot it well," Stevens said. "We were 7 for 35 from 3. And we struggled late in that game. One of the reasons we struggled late in that game is because they were scoring every time and setting up their 2-2-1 [zone]. Then we're not going to be able to play fast up the court because they're extending the floor to make you take time to start your play later and then we get into ind of our stagnancy that hurt us a couple times late. And that's not a new thing.
"And so we were way better most of the season late in games, but in the playoffs we had moments where we got back to that. Everything plays a role in that. It's all tied together, it all fits together. But I thought that, you know, we struggled offensively to generate great looks at times against Miami's defense."
Some of this is because the Celtics didn't space the floor as well as they could, forced bad shots and drove into traffic. Some of this is because the Heat pressured the ball, took away driving lanes and did everything they could to make Boston uncomfortable.
"We had trouble getting by that first line of defense with all the helping hands and activity," Stevens said.
Boston shot 30.3% from 3-point range in the conference finals, including 33.5% on catch-and-shoot 3s. Stevens did not, however, blame the loss on poor shooting luck.
"The way I've always looked at it," he said, is that, toward the end of a series, it's about generating the kind of shots that are in your wheelhouse. "And I thought Miami did a really good job in Game 7 specifically of getting what they wanted and keeping us from getting what we wanted."
Stevens seemed more interested in discussing home vs. road than offense vs. defense. The Celtics dropped Game 5 against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, then Games 1 and 5 at home against Philadelphia and three of their four home games against the Heat, finishing with a 5-6 record at TD Garden in the postseason.
"As I kind of do the postmortem of the season, there are all these things that I've talked about. And then I go back to, if we're over .500 at home, we would've had rest and we'd have been in the Finals. And I know that sounds too simple, but we need to be better on offense, we need to be better on defense, we need to be better helping all through the seats we're in here within this building and we need to play better when we work all year for home-court advantage.
"And so there's all kinds of things. And that's why the margin is so slim when you're talking about doing a freaking end of the season press conference or playing Finals Game 1 tonight. That's one of the toughest things to swallow, and this is how slim that is."