Blakely: Celtics offense dictating poor defense

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Blakely: Celtics offense dictating poor defense

OAKLAND, Calif. The Boston Celtics have built a foundation on strong defensive principles that at the very least, are unsettled right now.

The identity of this team has been that they are a cohesive unit defensively with any number of able-bodied players who can put up big numbers scoring.

Because of that, they could withstand an occasional offensive lull and still hold their own or more often than not, win.

But this is a different season, a different team.

And that defensive foundation?

It has changed too ... and it's not for the better, either.

These days, the Celtics tend to allow their offense to dictate their play defensively.

So when shots don't fall, they have nothing to lean on to carry them through the tough dry spells that all teams have to endure over the course of a game.

And that inability has been at the core of this team's problems this year, problems that were apparent for most of Saturday night as the Celtics dropped their second straight game, 101-83, to Golden State.

The loss slips the Celtics (14-15) to below-.500 status, a position they have not been in since Nov. 9.

And while there are sure to be parallels drawn between what the C's are doing now and what they did last year (Boston was 15-14 after 29 games a year ago), there's one big difference:

Last year's team was out of shape courtesy of the NBA lockout. And even that didn't take away from them having a strong defensive identity even in those early season losses.

This group?

Game after game, it's one defensive breakdown after another that add up to rough times and most significant, mounting losses.

Doc Rivers won't hesitate in letting anyone within earshot know that he's still learning about this team.

Sadly, there are some truths about the C's this season that he'd wish didn't exist.

The way they let their shooting dictate their play is one of them.

"That's the one thing I do know about this team," Rivers said. "In the past, we could play bad and still win because we didn't get frustrated if the offense (struggled). This is not that group so far. When we miss shots, we are a bad defensive team. Right now, our offense absolutely dictates how hard, how well, how disciplined we stay on defense. That's something I've seen and continues."

Rivers added, "that's our identity. That's who we are right now. You got the whole year to change it, but you have to change it quickly."

Celtics big man Kevin Garnett has also recognized the change with this team - so far at least - not being as locked in defensively as C's teams of the past.

"Since I've been here, we've been a defensive team that has been fueled by the defense," Garnett said. "And that has turned into some offense. Right now, we're not that. Somehow through practice, through repetition, whatever it may be, we have to change that."

Said Paul Pierce: "We have to figure out who we want to be. Do we want to be a defense-first team? If we're not going to be a defensive team, we have to be a better offensive team. It's gotta be something. We still have to find our way."

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

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There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track.