End of Celtics’ winning streak exposes flaws in their game

Friday, 24 November 2017, 11:44:42 AM. And so it was “a little bit of a mirage,” according to Brad Stevens.Not that the Celtics didn’t win 16 straight games, or that they didn’t play like the best team in the league over that stretch. But as the C’s coach routinely pointed out to his players, the team wasn’t as good as the record.Though Stevens and his staff addressed the flaws daily — especially when it came to improving the offensive

And so it was “a little bit of a mirage,” according to Brad Stevens.

Not that the Celtics didn’t win 16 straight games, or that they didn’t play like the best team in the league over that stretch. But as the C’s coach routinely pointed out to his players, the team wasn’t as good as the record.

Though Stevens and his staff addressed the flaws daily — especially when it came to improving the offensive issues that nipped at this team throughout — Wednesday night’s loss in Miami finally brought these points to the forefront.

At one stage, the Celtics won three straight games while shooting 40 percent or slightly higher, and that low ebb of efficiency (41.7 percent) wasn’t good enough. Kyrie Irving nearly bailed his team out again with eight points in the last two minutes, but the Celtics won’t get far by relying too much on the point guard’s elite closing skills. They needed his 47 points to win in overtime Monday night in Dallas.

It’s time for a tweaking. Irving, asked about what had to be fixed, chose brevity when he said, “Just continue to play with pace and get the ball to the second side.”

Regarding the first point, the Celtics are 21st in the NBA in pace — a valued stat that measures possessions per game. They’re also 20th in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions). Neither speaks well of a team that aspires to be a top-five offensive squad.

“We need to continue to run our offense with more pace,” said Al Horford. “That’s the thing that’s not clicking as it should. We got good looks (against Miami) but they weren’t going down.

“But we need to play with more pace. That means getting in better shape, conditioning. I feel like our defense is solid. On offense, we have to play harder — that’s the best way to describe it.”

Horford is right about the defensive part. The Celtics still lead the NBA with a 96.4 defensive rating, and their ability to protect the paint and contest 3-point shooters was the glue that held together that winning streak.

But they need to give themselves a break offensively.

“We know we have to get better,” said Stevens. “When we’re locked in and we’re executing, we’re pretty good. However, we go through too many lulls when we’re not, as do most teams, and that’s one of the things you try to clean up.”

In addition to his belief that the team needs better conditioning, Horford believes the Celtics also need a mental readjustment.

“We have to make sure we’re focused,” he said. “We are focused but have to be more focused, and make sure we execute. We have to impose our will and set the tone, and that’s probably the next step for our group. I’m sure the coach will address that.”

That lack of focus was apparent down the stretch against Miami, with poor free-throw shooting and turnovers getting in the way of another comeback. This time an 18-point deficit was too much to overcome because of the mistakes.

“It’s tough, but I’m proud of the group. We were struggling, but we came together in the fourth, kept fighting, put ourselves in position to win the game there. Didn’t make plays down the stretch,” said Horford.

“We’ll learn from that. There were a lot of plays there left to be made. I missed a couple of free throws down the stretch that added up — things that didn’t go our way, (as opposed to) Dallas and a couple of other games that did go our way.”

And now, after 16 games and 35 days of winning, the Celtics can work on those offensive adjustments, with Orlando, another team the C’s beat during the streak, due at the Garden tonight.

“It’s very remarkable that we have a group of guys who could do this,” said Horford. “We didn’t necessarily dominate. The will of this team is something people have to take into account.

“We have a special group, we’re going to continue to get better. This will give us a chance to go in the right direction. Even though we lost, we did things that put us in a position to win it.”

Irving is certainly ready for a fresh start.

“Law of averages, and pick ourselves up — though it sounds weird to say pick ourselves up — move on to the next one,” he said.

“We’re a resilient group. We hold each other accountable. As far as our focus level, we’re definitely locked in when we need to be. As long as we stick together, we’re developing into a great team.”

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