BROOKLYN — The Boston Celtics played without Rajon Rondo on Thursday. Not coincidentally, the Celtics lost to the Brooklyn Nets, 102-97.
Rondo was missed, especially early in the first quarter and late in the fourth, when the Celtics’ offense looked disjointed without its point guard. Leandro Barbosa played far too many minutes (30-plus) for a guy who doesn’t know the team’s plays, and the Celtics’ scorers had to work harder than usual for their points.
But the correlation between Rondo’s absence and the final score wasn’t quite as strong as you might think, and their issues on Thursday went beyond point guard. All you need to know is that the Nets grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, and it was the third time in the last four games that the Celtics have allowed 16 or more offensive boards.
Rebounding issues are just the latest problem with the Celtics’ defense, which ranks 22nd in the league through Thursday. The Nets, with all the defensive issues they have, are ranked higher. And only one team — the Miami Heat, perhaps ironically — has regressed more defensively than the Celtics.
Most regressed defenses (points allowed per 100 possessions)
Oh, but the Celtics always start slow and get their act together by the playoffs, right? No, not really. Last year, when players were out of shape in the wake of the lockout, that was the case. But in the four years prior, the Celtics were the fastest starters in the league, racking up an incredible 94-14 record in games played before Christmas.
This group is different, and they’ll likely improve as the season goes on. The new faces need to learn and adjust to the system. But Thursday’s problems were as much about effort as they were about learning curves.
“We didn’t make any adjustments,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said about his team’s improvement on the glass in the second half. “We just fought more, we got into bodies, we helped less, we didn’t allow guys to beat us off the dribble as much. And I thought we did a better job.”
Still, when the Nets were scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter, the resistance they faced was not what we’ve come to expect from the Celtics. Joe Johnson got to his spots a little too easily down the stretch, and Brook Lopez got one more put-back on a critical possession.
Don’t get it twisted. The Celtics need Rondo … desperately. Playing without him is a problem, not just because he’s a brilliant point guard, but because he’s the only point guard on the Celtics’ roster. Barbosa and Courtney Lee were point guards by name only on Thursday.
But as much as they need to get their point guard back, the Celtics need to get their defense in order. They currently rank 23rd in forcing turnovers and 26th in defending the 3-point line. Those are two categories in which they ranked in the top five last season.
Asked by TNT’s Craig Sager about Rondo’s absence after the first quarter, Rivers said, “We can still play defense, which we’re not.”
Over the last few seasons, Rondo’s presence on the floor has meant more offensively than defensively. And when the Celtics went 24-10 after the All-Star break last season, it was all about defense. They actually ranked 26th offensively after the break, but were over eight points per 100 possessions better than the league average defensively.
Much was made this preseason about Rondo officially taking over the reins as the Celtics’ leader, but the Celtics don’t necessarily need him to get back to being an elite defensive team. They’ll gladly welcome him back when his sprained right ankle is healthy though. While their next two games — vs. Toronto on Saturday and at Detroit on Sunday — seem very winnable without their point guard, Rivers says that the opponent won’t determine his point guard’s status.
“If he’s ready to play whenever we play again, he’ll play,” Rivers said. “If he’s not, he won’t. We’ll just keep moving.”