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Celtics must rediscover defensive identity to make series vs. Heat competitive

C’s must rediscover defensive identity to make series vs. Heat competition originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics have no more margin for error in the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat.

They are one more loss away from being swept — a result almost unthinkable entering this series. The list of reasons why the Heat have a stranglehold on the series is a long one. Miami’s red-hot 3-point shooting and Boston’s inability to hit those same shots is a huge reason for the Heat’s success. Coaching has also been a major advantage for the Heat.

If the Celtics want to have any chance of preventing a sweep and making this series semi-competitive, the turnaround must start on the defensive end of the floor.

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Defense has been the Celtics’ identity for the last couple of years. Their dominance on that end of the court fueled their incredible second-half resurgence in the 2021-22 regular season and their journey to the 2022 NBA Finals.

That stellar defense has shown up in spurts this season, but the effort level and execution have not been as consistent. That said, the Celtics finished No. 2 in defensive rating during the regular season. They are 10th in defensive rating in the playoffs. Boston has allowed Miami to score 120.6 points per game in this conference finals series. The Celtics gave up 110.6 points per game in the regular season.

Friday night’s Game 3 loss to the Heat in Miami was a new low for the Celtics’ defense in 2022-23. The Heat scored 128 points on 56.8 percent shooting, including a 54.3 percent rate from 3-point range.

“I think some of that defensive identity has been lost, and we have to get that back, and that’s where part of that is on me to make sure we get that back,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said after his team’s Game 3 loss. on Sunday night.

Mazzulla later added: “Just these last couple games. I think just the execution, just we’re not connected. Usually at our best, we’re connected, we’re together, we’re physical on the defensive end, and we don’t have that right now.”

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One of the ways for the Celtics to create better offense is just to defend better. It’s pretty difficult to get out in transition and set up good looks at the basket when the opponent is hitting shots at a high rate, and the Heat are shooting a blistering 47.8 percent from 3-point range through three games.

“Yeah, I think it starts with we’ve got to defend,” Mazzulla said. “We have to get stops, we have to execute, and yes, when you don’t execute on the defensive end and they make shots, then it affects the way you play offense. We just have to put our identity into our defensive execution first .”

The Celtics have the potential to be an elite defensive team. Marcus Smart won the Defensive Player of the Year Award last season. Derrick White was a second team All-Defense selection this year. Robert Williams, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown all have the athleticism, length and talent to be really good defenders.

There are many things the Celtics must improve to get back in this series. Giving more effort on defense would be a good place to start entering Tuesday night’s must-win Game 4.