BOSTON -- One of the messages that Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has preached often to his team is the idea that it cannot take a single play off. These young Celtics are simply not talented enough to get by with anything less than maximum effort on every possession.
Asking for that over the course of 48 minutes per game, over 82 games per season, is mighty demanding. But these Celtics have no other choice.
That's why a sequence midway through the third quarter of Friday's 109-96 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers seemed to draw Stevens' ire. The Celtics were down five when Avery Bradley shuffled over to help on LaMarcus Aldridge, who had caught the ball alone on the left elbow. Aldridge swung the ball to Bradley's man, Damian Lillard, on the right wing, forcing Jeff Green to rush out to defend the 3-point line.
Lillard instead drove, but for whatever reason, Bradley just sort of froze near the foul line and watched him attack the basket, forcing Boston's defense to suck in. Lillard alertly kicked it to the corner to a wide-open Wesley Matthews, who missed the 3-pointer.
Disaster averted? Not quite. The Celtics failed to put bodies on Blazers during the shot attempt -- including Bradley, who was still wandering near the right elbow. The ball got deflected to Lillard on the left wing and he quickly canned a 3-pointer for an eight-point lead.
Stevens looked at Bradley, confused by his lack of recovery (in fairness to Bradley, he looked as if he might have had a shoe issue). But the inability to finish the possession led to the Trail Blazers' seventh 3-pointer of the night and put Boston in a hole it simply couldn't rally out of. Bradley spent the next 12-plus minutes on the bench before re-entering in the fourth quarter.
Stevens didn't single any individual players out after the game -- that's not his style, nor was Bradley the only transgressor on this night at TD Garden -- but the first-year coach reaffirmed that this team simply cannot relent at either end of the floor.
"We can't take plays off," said Stevens. "That can't be part of our M.O. It's not going to work out in the end for us, on either end of the floor. I'm not saying that we did without rewatching [the game film]. I've got to go watch it again, but those guys are going to make you pay if you relax at all. And they did. They really did."
Three-point defense was a major point of emphasis for the Celtics entering Friday's game, and while they held Portland to a respectable percentage (34.6) beyond the arc, it was often the timing and nature of how those 3-pointers were generated that stung.
For instance, the Blazers were up three with two minutes to go in the second quarter when Matthews caught the ball blanketed by Bradley in a late-clock situation. Matthews created some space with a dribble, then quickly stepped back behind the line for a tough 3-pointer and a 54-48 lead. You have to live with those.
But with the lead back down to three and under a minute to play in the first half, Lillard got dribble penetration after blowing past Jordan Crawford and, with four white shirts near the paint, he dished to an open Nicolas Batum on the right wing. Green couldn't scramble out quickly enough and Batum hit the team's third 3-pointer in 83 seconds.
"We really had some good moments defensively, and then we let our guard down at the end of the first half," said Stevens. "They got those three 3s -- one of which was a very good shot by Matthews, very well defended by Avery. And then the other two, we just relaxed on Batum and now you've got Batum going. And that's not a good thing. I don't know what he ended up with, but it sure felt like more than 18 because he hit some big ones that really separated the game and then, when we were scoring at the start of the second half and they were scoring every time too, we were just trading baskets. And in a comeback, you can't do that."
Echoed veteran Gerald Wallace: "[The Blazers] made some shots that were tough shots, contested shots. We lost a couple guys, guys that we know are great shooters, we lost them, let them get open looks, and let them get their rhythm going. And as good as they shoot the ball, you can't allow that against a team like this."
Crawford noted that Boston players got caught hanging their heads a bit after the Blazers made some big shots. Boston can't put itself in position to have its spirit broken by giving up uncontested perimeter looks.
Maybe Stevens hexed his squad before the game when he noted, "We've been good all year at defending the 3-point line and, knock on wood, because if we're not tonight, it won't be close."
The Celtics defended the line pretty well, but not well enough. Those lapses in focus, the few plays Boston took off, were too much to overcome against a quality opponent.
It's another lesson in just how locked in this team needs to be to compete on a daily basis.