There is not way to sugar-coat it, the Celtics are in trouble and are one loss away from being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Miami Heat.
The reigning East champs are coming off a 128-102 loss in Game 3, one of their worst playoff performances in franchise history -- as they shot a mere 39.8% from the field (11-of-26 from 3) while allowing the Heat to knock down 56.8% of their attempts, including 19-of-35 (54.3%) from deep.
For guard Malcolm Brogdon, one factor for the C's trailing 3-0 in this series has been the lack of defense, something that clearly was their calling card a season ago.
"We haven't been consistently great defensively all year long and that was the team's identity last year," Brogdon told reporters Monday afternoon. "I think that's slipped away from us. We've had spurts where we've been great defensively, but not consistently.
"And honestly, we've struggled in every series we played. So, now we're playing a team that's playing as if they're the best team in the league, and they're just incredibly disciplined, incredibly consistent. And I think we've struggled with teams that are consistent on a possession-by-possession basis every night."
While Brogdon, who called the Celtics loss in the series opener to the Heat "a mental game at this point" and wasn't even on the roster during the team's run to the NBA Finals last year, understands how searching for an defensive identity in late May is tough, especially when you're on the brink of elimination and on the road.
Under Ime Udoka, Boston bought in on making timely stops that turned into easy offense. Despite the same core returning with Joe Mazzulla, the interim turned head coach implemented more 3-point shooting -- which when those shots were falling the Celtics looked unbeatable during stretches of the regular season. They finished second in treys attempted per game (42.6) behind the Golden State Warriors and also set a new franchise record for the most made 3s in a season (1,315), while notching the third highest offensive rating in league history at 118.
Still, the Celtics 40% average from behind the arc was the best of any team in the postseason through the first two rounds until they ran into Miami. In the first three games against the Heat, Boston is just hitting 29.2% on 3-point attempts. Jaylen Brown and Al Horford are a combined 5-for-33 so far and Jayson Tatum was 1-of-7 in Sunday's loss.
Meanwhile, on the other end, Miami -- a team that was ranked 27th in 3-point average at 34.4% during the regular season -- has nailed 47.8% of their 3-point attempts through the first three games against the Celtics.
"I think we're a team that, all year long, has relied on making shots, and when we don't make shots -- our defense wanes, it slips," Brogdon said. "And that's something we've talked about. It's something we've tried to work on. And it's something we've been extremely aware [of], but it's continued to be an issue for us."
Miami just seems like a team that's lock-in to a point that you don't know who's going to knock down huge shots outside of Jimmy Butler on any given play. Role players like Vincent Gabe, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin have drastically increased their 3-point average throughout the postseason.
"I think it's teams that have a strong identity," Brogdon said of Boston's troubles. "I think Miami is one of the teams, one of the few teams in the league -- Miami, Denver, there are only a few of them that have a really strong identity and they play by it every single night. They're super committed to it.""For us, our identity has waned all year long, We've been trying to figure out who we are because I think we're such a great, talented scoring team. But when we don't make shots, we got to rely on our defense -- and our defense isn't consistent every night. So, playing a team that's very consistent and disciplined, we struggle."
As the Celtics struggle to find an identity on the verge of being swept and Miami hitting their stride at the right time, the choice to keep chucking up shots versus hunkering down on defense is an obvious one -- according to Brogdon.
"I think defense should be the identity. I think when you get to the end of the playoffs, the Eastern Conference Finals, the [NBA] Finals -- it's the best defensive teams that are going to take that step forward and win a series," Brogdon said. "I think we've seen that."Shots aren't going to fall every night. That's just the reality of the league. It's a miss-or-make league. So our defense has to be our calling card."
With the season on the line, the Celtics look to send the series back to Boston as Game 4 is scheduled for a 8:30 ET tip-off tonight on TNT.
Photo used courtesy of Getty Images
Photo used courtesy of Getty Images