Steve Hewitt: Celtics lost their defense identity, and that was ultimate death of promising season

Tribune Content Agency

BOSTON — When the Celtics suspended Ime Udoka for the season and promoted Joe Mazzulla to become a first-time head coach, they did more than simply make a coaching change. They changed their identity.

The C’s were two wins away from a championship under Udoka behind the strength of their defense, but they came up short because they didn’t have enough offense. With Mazzulla in charge, the style shifted to an offensive-first approach.

Ultimately, the Celtics fell short of expectations because of that lost defensive identity. It’s what dug them in an 0-3 series deficit to the Heat that was too much to overcome even after they rediscovered their defense to reel off three consecutive wins and force an unthinkable Game 7.

“It was the issue,” Malcolm Brogdon said of their lost defensive identity. “I think this was a team in the last year that prided themselves on defense. I think defense was our calling card. This year offense was our calling card. I don’t think you win championships with a … better offense than you have a defense.”

Mazzulla’s offense was unstoppable to start the season as the unit performed at historic levels in October and November. The coach prioritized spacing and shooting 3-pointers, and it worked at the beginning. But when it reverted back to the mean, when nights came that their 3-point shots weren’t falling, the C’s couldn’t rely on anything else to win games.

Including the playoffs, the Celtics had a 52-9 record when they shot 35% or better from 3-point range this season. When they shot below that mark, they were 16-25.

Asked if his team was too reliant on 3-point shooting, Mazzulla was defiant.

“No,” the coach said, flatly.

But on poor shooting nights, the Celtics’ defense often wasn’t there like it was a year ago. Robert Williams’ absence for the first 29 games of the season loomed large, and while the Celtics still had a top-five defense in the regular season, it was ultimately too inconsistent.

Their 3-point shooting doomed them in the most important games of the season. The Celtics shot 20% from deep — their worst mark of the season — in Game 6 against the Heat and barely survived thanks to Derrick White’s miraculous buzzer-beating tip-in. They followed that up with a 21.4% effort — their second-worst mark of the year — in Game 7 as they missed their first 12 attempts from three, and it haunted them. It put too much pressure on their defense as they dug a hole they couldn’t climb out of to end their season.

“Defensively, I thought we had the versatility, I thought we have the talent defensively,” Brogdon said. “But on any given night we would let go of the rope and have a lot of breakdowns on that end.”

Now, as they head to the offseason full of questions, how they fix those inconsistencies and flaws will be among the biggest.

“That’s definitely a Joe question,” Brogdon said. “But for us I think we can be better. I think we can — I think defensively is where the difference is for us more than anything, whether or not you make shots.

“(Game 7) was a game, whether or not we made shots, if we got stops, we could stay in that game. That’s not a team that’s going to score 120 points. It’s not a team that’s going to get out in transition and beat you that way. They’re going to slow the game down and play in the half court. So, if we can get stops, that’s a game we can stay in, even if we’re not making shots. But the fact of the matter is we didn’t get stops. That ultimately was the death of us.”