2023 Playoffs: East Final | Celtics (2) vs. Heat (8)

Defensive collapse fuels Celtics' 3-0 deficit to Heat

Among the NBA's elite defensive teams in recent seasons, Boston has been shredded by Miami in all 3 games to find itself on the brink of elimination.

How much blame for Boston's tailspin falls on rookie coach Joe Mazzulla?

MIAMI – Someday, somehow, some way, some team will claw all the way back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven NBA playoff series. The 0-149 historical record is daunting, but survival is theoretically possible. It already has been done in MLB and the NHL, so it seems just a matter of time before it happens here too.

Remember, the NBA is only 76 years old. Just getting started.

The 2022-23 Boston Celtics, however, are an unlikely bunch to do it. Overcome 3-0? Heck, the Celtics can’t even manage 3-0 on a quarter-by-quarter basis, having given up at least 30 points in seven of the 12 frames so far, including all four in Game 3 Sunday.

Boston had the second-best defensive rating (110.6) in the league after ranking first last season (106.2). But its effeciency at that end of the floor has dipped to 113.5 in these playoffs, good for 10th among the 16 qualified teams. And against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals – Game 4 is Tuesday at Kaseya Center (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) – the Celtics are getting riddled at the rate of 124.4 points permitted per 100 possessions.

The Heat, one victory away from reaching the Finals as the East’s No. 8 seed, ranked 25th in offense (112.3) during the regular season. But they’re humming along at 117.5, right behind Denver (119.2) among playoff participants, while drawing praise for finally unlocking their scoring potential.

Is it that, though, or is it more a reflection of Boston’s porous performances lately? In the half-full, half-empty conundrum of weighing offense vs. defense in head-to-head competition, there is a case to be made that Miami is better off without scorers Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo and simply needed time to adapt to their absences.

Herro in particular can be a ball stopper, getting up nearly 17 shots per game and using more than a quarter of the Heat’s possessions on average. Those looks and opportunities have been re-distributed to Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and shooters Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson. Better spacing and a streamlined pecking order have been making up for the threats that Herro and Oladipo would have provided.

Asked about his team’s offense during its 128-102 romp in Game 3 – the Heat shot 56.8% overall and made 19-of-35 3-pointers – coach Erik Spoelstra described what we’re seeing now as a payoff for months of work behind the practice curtain.

“It really was all season long,” Spoelstra said. “The intention of coming in after really frustrating losses, watching film, working at it, being intentional, getting on the same page, over-communicating it. ‘This is not working, this is what’s working more,’ and everybody just pouring into that process. Those are gratifying experiences. Particularly when you’re losing games and you’re getting criticized for it. But you’re still able to just come together and try to get it right.”

Hoping to get back into the series, Boston instead suffers another embarrassing defeat in Game 3.

Then again, Boston’s defense was expected to be way better than this. Collectively, the stats cited above and others – the Celtics were 33-5 this year when holding opponents to 110 points or less – speak for themselves. Individually, Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Al Horford and Robert Williams III all have reputations as quality defensive players.

To zero avail in this round.

Guard Malcolm Brogdon wasn’t even a member of the Celtics last season. But he recalled that team, knows how effective the Celtics have been at times this season and hasn’t been seeing or feeling that at all lately.

“We haven’t been consistently great defensively all year long,” Brogdon said, “and that was the team’s identity last year. I think that’s slipped away from us. We’ve had spurts where we’ve been great defensively, but not consistently.”

Brogdon spoke to reporters Monday at the team hotel, where Boston broke down film from Sunday’s loss on the heels of blown double-digit leads in Games 1 and 2.

“And honestly, we’ve struggled in every series we’ve played,” he added. “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.”

For all those accomplished defenders, the Celtics have taken nothing away from the Heat. Coach Joe Mazzulla resisted double-teaming Jimmy Butler and then, when finally sending help in Game 3, just sprung loose others.

Compounding the defensive issues, Boston’s offense has sagged as a result. Many coaches will tell you it’s easier to defend when a team is shooting and scoring efficiently. One reason is simple: being able to get back and set up defensively while the opponent is inbounding the ball. The other — having more spring in one’s step when the fun part is going well — is psychological.

Lots of people saw quit in the faces, body language and activity of Boston’s players, notably in the third quarter.

Fact is, the Celtics have been in a death spiral of bad defense begetting failed offense. They shot less than 40% in Game 3 (39-for-98) and hit only 11 3s in 42 tries. They got up 17 more shots than Miami but finished with fewer field goals and 3s. In the series, Boston has shot 29.2% from the arc and it is averaging 15 turnovers.

“We weren’t hitting shots, and then we weren’t getting back on defense,” Horford said, “and we have to understand that our DNA, our core as a team is on the defensive end. That’s who we are, and that’s something that we have to find if we want to come back and win this series.”

Whoa, one step at a time. By going one stop at a time.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.