Tony Allen has never been one to hold his tongue. The former Celtics guard-turned-Memphis defensive stopper offered a blunt assessment of his old team following Memphis’s 93-83 win at TD Garden Wednesday night.
“They’re missing a lot of pieces,” said Allen when asked about how this Celtics team compared to the one he was on in 2007-08. “I don’t think they’ve really got a defensive-minded guy yet. I mean, they’ve got one [Avery Bradley], but I can’t say he’s 100 percent just yet. I don’t think they’ve got the center like Perk [Kendrick Perkins]. It’s kind of hard finding a guy who clogs up the paint, talks trash to you, and can actually back it up. They’re just missing a lot. I don’t know. I don’t see the same team from 2008.”
Allen isn’t wrong. The 2007-08 Celtics team that won a championship was first in the NBA in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and second in points allowed at 90.3 points per game. They were also a respectable 12th in total rebounding, owing to their 9th-place ranking on the defensive glass.
This year’s Celtics, meanwhile, are 13th out of 30 teams in defensive rating. They’re 17th in points allowed, giving up 97.9 points per game. They rank 29th in rebounding—18th in defensive rebounds and dead last on the offensive glass. They are not, in other words, remotely close to playing at a championship level.
While the comparisons to 2008 are disheartening, far more telling are the comparisons to last year’s team that started the season 15-17 and turned things around to make it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. This season’s Celtics are 14-17 and can match last year’s start with a win Friday night vs. the Pacers. But there’s a big reason why this slow start is different than the last one.
Despite their ups and downs, last year’s Celtics didn’t waver on defense. In fact, they ranked first overall in defensive rating and actually allowed fewer points per game (89.3) than they did during their championship run.
“It’s not guarding our guys,” Bradley said afterward. “We’ve all got to be on a string and helping each other out. Once we learn that we’ll be fine. That’s been our struggle, what we’ve been working on a lot in practice.
“Every team has its ups and downs. The best teams are the ones who can go through the adversity. I feel like we’re going to overcome.”
Bradley’s return will help, even if it didn’t lead to a win Wednesday night, but the Celtics need more. The team ranked last in the NBA in total rebounding last year, so that’s something they can deal with and still contend. But defense has been the hallmark of the Celtics since Garnett and Doc Rivers got together. Without it, the Celtics are a mediocre team at best and in danger of slipping out of the playoffs at worse.
Recent defensive play has been alarming. A Memphis team that ranks in the middle of the pack offensively shot 61 percent in the first half Wednesday night. A Sacramento team that ranks even worse dropped 118 points on the Celtics on Sunday. The Celtics have given up 100 or more points 14 times this season. They are 4-10 in those games.
Can you teach a group of players who aren’t doing it to play defense on a string? Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Garnett, and Bradley know how to do it. The team’s newcomers are struggling with the concept. When asked last night if the team’s new players care enough about defense, Rivers replied, “I don’t think they understand it as much... they want it, but they have to find out how to do it”
Before last night’s game, Rondo interrupted Courtney Lee during a pregame shooting drill and instructed him to stop going through the motions. Rondo told Lee to release his shot quicker, as if it were in a real game. Lee obliged, appeasing Rondo at least for the moment.
Maybe more instruction is all this team needs. Maybe relative newcomers like Lee, Jason Terry, and Jeff Green will follow Bradley’s example and begin to play the kind of help defense that makes teams hesitant to drive the lane or make a cross-court pass, the kind that Allen, Perkins, and the rest of the 2008 Celtics used to play. Maybe they’ll stop trying to be perfect and start getting down and dirty. Five years after he left and for all his faults, these Celtics could use a little more Tony Allen in their play.